Play Harder

For one bright, blue, shining moment in 1998, Viagra united us in a way Mark McGwire only thought he could. Pumped up on the drug's sales, Viagra's manufacturer, Pfizer, slipped past Merck & Co. on some stock traders' lists to become the No. 1 pharmaceutical company in the nation.When major insurers (including PacifiCare and Kaiser) announced they wouldn't cover Viagra, Democrats threatened to make them pay for it-as if life, liberty and a hard-on are inalienable rights. Not to be left out, a female researcher in Boston soon found the drug could help women, too, by pumping more blood to the female genitalia just as efficiently and effectively as it does in men. Nothing seemed to slow the drug's success-not the Federal Aviation Administration's October warning that some pilots with Viagra woodies might also be slightly color-blind (more on which in a moment), not news that some women turned litigious when their newly engorged dinosaur-husbands went roaming the earth in search of young flesh, not news that a few of those dinosaurs were put down during sex by faulty hearts.A 72-year-old chum with a faulty heart and a low-profile penis has a prescription for Viagra, which is how, ultimately, I got my hands on a few test pills. We filled the prescription together at a Costa Mesa pharmacy, where an Asian chap in a lab coat handed us 14 blue tabs with the drugmaker's name printed in cursive along their seductive length. The pharmacist cautioned my friend about a variety of ills that might befall him under the influence of Viagra, not one of which included poking himself in the chin. You might see blue-green, the pharmacist said, but it's a short-lived phenomenon. (The American Academy of Ophthalmology reports that at "higher doses," Viagra users experienced this "retinal dysfunction," which sounds much worse than it is, since this "dysfunction" basically means that the world might appear bluer than usual.) It'll almost certainly make your face turn niacin-rush red, a byproduct of Viagra's chief effect-which, of course, is to dilate the blood vessels in the penis (and in the eyeball) so that mere manhood becomes true redwood. Oh, the pharmacist also told us, a few guys-16 by mid-1998-dropped dead during intercourse.Sex good enough to kill.Outside in the parking lot, my friend cranked and cranked at the childproof bottle cap. A man who fought his way through the Japanese-held South Pacific, who flipped pebbles into the rain-soaked eye sockets of his enemies, who ran through two wives and oil tankers of Scotch, couldn't get this cap off. So he smashed the bottle between both thumbs and the business sections of his index fingers. The plastic splintered, the pills cascaded onto the asphalt, and we were laughing like kids under a pharmacological pinata.My friend has given me two of his pills because there's no way I'd qualify on my own. I called several Newport Beach doctors and heard the same story: If I'm fine-the fishing tackle in working order-what the hell do I want with Viagra? I want what every American wants: a cure not only to what ails me, but also a booster to improve what doesn't. I'm fine; I want to be superfine. So my wife and I prepared for an experiment, purely-or almost purely -in the interests of medical science, you understand: a perfectly healthy male of 38, I will ingest one hit of Viagra-enough to entimber a man twice my age-and then proceed to make love to my wife.A week before the experiment, we hit a snag: the wife was found to be pregnant. We ran through the options: self-pleasuring on Viagra is out (as useless as 4-wheel drive on your neighbor's Lincoln Navigator), and a substitute is unthinkable (wifely objections). But then we figured, what the hell. The baby was still lentil-sized, and unless Viagra exceeds its already-engorged reputation for transforming mere pawns into bishops, I'm unlikely to poke the baby in the head and cause brain damage-which itself would be a major contribution to science, no?While we dickered, Viagra's reputation grew apace. Unable to get the drug quickly enough, foreign impotents turned to the black market. A shipment of the stuff disappeared from a warehouse in Caracas, Venezuela. Chinese gangs stole or bought Viagra in the U.S. and then shipped it illegally into Taiwan, where, before Viagra, the only impotence drugs had been tiger penises and rhino horn. (Where's Pfizer's nomination as Environmental Organization of the Year?) In May in Israel, the warning went out to limp men, like an LSD caution at Woodstock, to avoid the little blue pills from Lebanon: they were harmless counterfeits. In San Clemente, Border Patrol agents busted a Japanese tourist on his way back from a Tijuana pharmacy-with 1,046 tabs. He was going to sell them in Japan for $300 each.The stuff was hot. And I had two hits burning a hole in my pocket-or perhaps that was just the sensation in my jeans. We laid out our experiment along very formal lines.HYPOTHESIS: Viagra will turn a normal, healthy adult male into a porn star.OTHER CONFLICTING/SUPPORTING STUDIES: rumors that gay clubs had been inundated with Viagra. Insufferable female colleague at another paper who noted that Viagra was redundant because it merely made horny men hornier. METHODOLOGY: ingest one tablet. Make love. Make love again. And again. Until we can't.CONCLUSIONS: in a moment.My wife and I typically engage in what we call video sex, which, as any adult couple with children will tell you, is not nearly as provocative as it sounds. To make love, be sure the children are either (a) gone; (b) dead asleep; or (c) fully absorbed in a video (regular TV's no good: children come calling during the commercials). So, on a spring Saturday afternoon at the apex of the Viagra craze, my wife in the garden, the children watching Cartoon Network in anticipation of an hourlong video on sharks, I took one hit of Viagra."I took it," I told my wife. She looked up from her flowers, her knees resting on my bundled-up sweat shirt, and did I detect for a moment the feeling some people must get when they first take Ecstasy? She raised a dirty hand to push away a strand of hair that had fallen into her mouth. And smiled. Just smiled. Damn! The stuff was working already!Except the hunger I was feeling was completely self-generated. For we know-contrary to the moronic female colleague at another paper-that Viagra is a drug of mechanical performance, not desire. It produces erections, not affections. I joined the kids on the couch and waited. Herewith, notes from my journal:4:29 p.m. Popeye is on. Spinach equals Viagra? Kids laugh as Popeye wallops Brutus. Could Spinach do for Popeye and Olive what Viagra does? Suggestion for future study: impact of spinach on erectile tissues.4:33 p.m. Older child begins to nag younger brother. Experiment imperiled if argument over seating arrangement persists beyond cartoons and into video sex, requiring adult intervention. 4:34 p.m. Reasoning with older brother fails; offer bribe. Bribe fails. Threaten older brother with punishment. Younger brother chortles. Threaten younger brother with punishment.4:35 p.m. Face reddening. No one notices. Check if wife is still in garden. Experiment imperiled if she disappears or gets sucked into untimely conversation with very witty neighbors. 4:43 p.m. Erection present. Need NASA announcer to call liftoff. The thing is disembodied-feeling of desire has disappeared, and I am left with this vestigial thing, tungsten-hard but without a single thread connecting phallus to heart. Like the proverbial banana in the pocket.4:44 p.m. Insert shark videotape. Admonish children to silence so that everyone can enjoy truly spectacular video.4:46 p.m. Yell out front door to wife that all systems are go.4:53 p.m. Wife says dog is lost outside.4:54 p.m. Tell wife, to hell with dog, experiment is imperiled. "Well, that doesn't sound like a very good drug if it can't last the 20 minutes it'll take to find the dog." It's not the drug, I say; it's the children, whose attention may be easily diverted from videotape. "Well, it's not like this is making me feel romantic," wife says. "You're making it sound like this is my fault." This is not about fault or romance, I say. This is about science. Please, I say, forget the dog. Come. Now.4:55 p.m. Experiment imperiled by argument.4:57 p.m. Dog returns.My face is radiating actual heat by the time we get to the bedroom, lock the door and draw the blinds. My penis is like imported, Singaporean hardwood from Greenpeace's list of endangered forests. On the other side of the wall, we can hear fragments of narrative ("Contrary to myth, some shark species, like the nurse shark, can actually remain motionless for hours") with the unmistakable verbal signs of a conflict brewing.I am in a state of undress. My wife is still dressed. She leaves the bedroom to settle the conflict among the small ones. I crawl between the cool sheets and wait. One minute. Two minutes. From the other room, I hear my wife sorting out the strands of the dispute, the narrator commenting on gill structure, and water sighing in the household pipes. I pick up the libertarian magazine Reason and read that unemployment is "terrorizing the French economy." And then I note that I am flaccid-from a solid to a near-liquid state in seconds. Perhaps this Viagra phenomenon is entirely psychological? I put down Reason, focus on the phallus and-like Yuri Geller with a spoon-call myself back into being. Or perhaps it's ideological. I pick up the neo-lib New Republic and turn to the aptly titled "Hot & Bothered" (it's about global warming)-and then hear my wife talking outside our window. About roses. With one of the witty neighbors. The two are laughing, and I am flaccid once again. I return to "Hot & Bothered." Author Gregg Easterbrook points out that the Left says global warming is for real and it's bad; the Right says the Left is nuts. Easterbrook says the earth is actually warming up, but-who cares?-we'll all live like Southern Californians. I get hot just thinking about it. My face feels like it's built around a thermonuclear core, but I'm flaccid again.The wife returns, locks the door, smiles, drops her dress and joins me. I bury my face in her hair-it smells like flowers from the garden; indeed, a few petals from something like alyssum are sprinkled throughout. Her skin feels warmed by the sun. I don't know what to make of what follows: we make love, gently, sweetly, and with good humor. Which is to say that we are intimate, just as we always are. But there are no starbursts. No blinding, near-death experiences. No endless, animal rutting. When we are finished, Our Little Superman returns to human proportions and resumes his job as a mild-mannered urine-delivery system. The dream of endless loving is dead. Months later, a friend tells me that one pill would never do, that two is what's indicated in a case like mine-a case like mine being a case in which the subject is youngish and, phallically speaking, normal. But by then, the wife is immense with child, and with every additional centimeter in fundic development, her sense of scientific adventure wanes. On a cool, fall day-clouds pregnant with rain-I take two more Viagra and then: shop, drive, read and write with an erection. Not literally with an erection, of course (I do not use the erection to pick out cantaloupes, steer, turn pages or dip ink from a well), but with the erection present, accompanying me, as it were. Like almost everything else in the modern world, then, Viagra proves that it can produce the appearance of something without producing anything like the animating spirit; like money without class, like democracy without voters, like a diploma without learning. And for that, Viagra is the Drug for the Age.

 
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