When my testosterone test comes back, the results are "normal low." I have no idea what the numbers mean (my prolactin is 3.4 out of a 3.0 to 19.0 range; my TSH is 2.35 uIU/mL out of a .40 to 5.50 range), but my doctor dismisses me over the phone with a final "You're fine." I'm disappointed. I don't feel fine; I feel soft. I've had years of good-if-not-great sex. Okay, sometimes I'm quick on the trigger, but even if I wasn't always fantastic, at least I was functional. "Normal low?" Normal, I understand. "Normal low" sounds un-normal, abnormal. It sounds no good at all. After a few more badgering phone calls, he refers me to Jed Kaminetsky, a Lexington Avenue erectionologist I'd told him I wanted to see.
Even Kaminetsky's waiting room is humiliating. One of his five secretaries hands me the standard doctor-issue paper cup to pee in, and there's a line to the small bathroom. When I get in, the age-spotted men talking testes in the john block my passageway to the sink. It's all I can do not to run out of his office.
After setting the cup on a tray full of them, I am handed a questionnaire, and the pain begins. "What's the reason for your visit?" Erectile dysfunction. "How long has it been since your penis functioned the way you think it should?" Fluctuates. "Are there any positional variations in your ability to obtain or maintain an erection?" Jesus Christ, I don't know. "Please circle the number which best describes the quality of your erection with self-masturbation," the questionnaire goes on. "Do you have any curvature on the penis with erection?" And on: "Do you have trouble with ejaculation?" And on: "Please circle the number which best describes the quality of your erections when your partner stimulates you orally." (This on a small graph with numbers from 1 -- none -- to 10 -- rigid.)
Kaminetsky is a little man with big hair and a blue Viagra paperweight on his desk. His assistant, Betsy, has a framed picture of her Dalmatian mounted on a block of Viagra notepads. Though primary-care physicians write most Viagra prescriptions, it isn't difficult to deduce that Kaminetsky has done his bit for Pfizer, the maker of the drug. He draws more blood, takes more tests, including one extremely unpleasant probe involving a rubber glove and a Vaseline swab. I'm not sure what Kaminetsky is looking for that my regular doctor couldn't find, but the end result is his prescribing a nocturnal-penile-tumescence machine called a RigiScan.
The RigiScan does what its name implies -- it scans the penis for rigidity, recording my erections during the course of the night. The average sleeping man has three to six erections, each lasting as long as 60 minutes. If you're having no problem sustaining an unconscious hard-on, the thinking goes, the problem must be mental, not physical.
There are three parts to the RigiScan. The clunkiest piece is the white plastic computer -- it looks something like a Wet Tunes shower radio -- that takes the readings; it weighs about three pounds, requires six nine-volt batteries, and gets Velcro'd from my knee to the top of my thigh. Two wires plug into the computer, ending in two loops that lasso my penis -- one at the tip, one at the base. The loops expand and contract every fifteen seconds. This circuit measures and records erections, then the doctor downloads the results. There is to be no alcohol or ejaculating prior to strapping myself into the RigiScan, which I'm to use for four consecutive nights, the last one preceded by a dose of Viagra.
The RigiScan feels like an electronic boa constrictor that pulses every fifteen seconds and squeezes with a grip I imagine Derek Jeter might use on his Louisville Slugger. Between blasts, which aren't hard enough to hurt and are too mechanical to feel good, I lie awake, bracing for the next clamp.
Kaminetsky's gut tells him my problems are mental, not physical. But my biggest erection problem tonight is that I'm strapped into this fucking machine. I can't sleep a wink. To take a piss involves disassembling the network, turning on the lights, and then, once I'm wide awake, putting my penis back into the vise. You try falling asleep after that. It will be ten days before I use it again.
Kaminetsky has given me three Viagra pills. I give one to my dad, and I need only one for the RigiScan, so the indomitably curious Erica and I decide to test making love after I pop the third one and we share a bottle of red wine. We look forward to it like payday.
But I don't like Viagra. You know how when you have a headache and you take a Tylenol, you can't feel it do anything? Viagra is the opposite of that. You take the pill, then shoot up in the air like someone's stomped on the tail of your skateboard. I walk around my small apartment with an aching erection the size of a Poland Springs water bottle. The last thing you want to do is make love with an erection like that. My penis feels as if there were a weight attached to it, like it wants to drop, but the medicine won't let it. It feels disconnected from the rest of my body, like a prosthetic arm or a remote-controlled robot with somebody else in command. But this is our make-or-break moment, and Erica and I make love on my floor. It's a science project -- a missionary, joyless affair.
"I'm never doing that again," I say when it's over.
"Bullshit," she says.