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Popping the Cherry

First performed at Litstock, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco


Where are the great marriages!?

Where are the Michael Jordans of marriage, the great public role models that inspire us to imitation?


Well, they're in Miami, the first weekend of June.

South Beach, Florida. Happy home to Art Deco hotels and bad restaurant service and soft shell crabs and on June 6th through 9th of this summer, the Mrs USA pageant, a parade of wives representing every grand state in the union, paragons of wedded virtue.

I covered the Mrs USA contest for a new men's glossy magazine, The Ring, to which I had just been named Executive Editor.

The Ring. A magazing celebrating monogamy. Never before had I seen so much money being thrown at a magazine launch. Nine by thirteen oversized format, perfect bound flat spine and printed on a seven-color press for an initial circulation target of 800,000 men. Superpremium ad rates. I had everything an editor could want except a knockout cover story.

Men's magazines had taken a cue from the women's magazines. Business school professors call it "The W (double-U) ATTITUDE". The first U, unrealistic. The second U, unattainable. In 1994, Men's Health burst on the scene with six-pack abdominals that preyed upon male insecurities, and in two years its circulation shot to 1.4 million, equal to GQ and Esquire combined.

Playboy and Maxim and Details and Loaded promised young men that they could extend their youth endlessly. But what was the real fear of the Maxim man? I had grown sick of writing for those magazines, because I knew what it was all about: the fear of marriage, of taking the plunge.

The Ring went at that same fear even more directly. In a culture ravaged by three decades of divorce, it would unapologetically triumph the perfect happiness of marriage. What could be more unattainable and unrealistic than perfect wives and gleeful couples? The point was to sell magazines, sure, but my mission was personal. When I was married I felt like the only monogamous guy in a universe of single women. If there had been a magazine like this to comfort me, I might still be wearing a ring myself.

My subject in Miami was Mrs. Minnesota, Kira Nilsson. My cover story, and the entire magazine launch, depended upon her winning. I figured she was a lock.

Not only was she babealicious, buttery skinned and 110 pounds and heartland hair and vulnerable and giving. Mrs. Minnesota was from a town near the border of Wisconsin where everyone had traced their roots back seven generations. And in those seven generations of this town, there had never been a single divorce. The town was even constructing an $8 million museum of marriage, projected to be the county's second largest tourist destination after the 200-foot-long sturgeon monument on State Highway 24. There was no way the MRS USA pageant judges could deny this town its rightful claim to the sash and tiara.

Reporting the story, Kira and I went roller skating, had dinner at a bodega on the beach, and shook our boodies at a South Beach disco. She said the key to marriage was: "That both spouses share similar degrees of curiousity and adventure. Every marriage will encounter thousands of people and opportunities. If you react similarly, the real world won't tear you apart."

Every woman echoes one particular nerve in your character most profoundly. Milan Kundera has defined intimacy as the temporary agreement to treat each other like children. I don't know there's even a word in our English language to describe the hlacyon effect of Mrs. Minnesota. Intimacy, but rather than to treat each other as children, to treat each other as our truest self.

What man wouldn't want a woman unafraid of the real world?

Her publicist separated us in the disco at midnight, saying Kira needed sleep for the contest the next afternoon. I had been granted my four hour allotment of access. If I had follow up questions, she could be reached by email. I returned to my hotel room. I didn't have her, but I had a cover story for The Ring. I banged out my article in an hour, then I sent Kira an email, thanking her, and then I rambled on a little, perhaps a little too much, effusing about her wonders. After hitting the send button I panicked. Had I gone too far?

I slunk down to my hotel bar to drown my guilt. I slid onto a highstool and began to nurse from the scotch bottle.

Faced away from me, a grayhaired woman berated her drinking companion. She kept yelling, "THE ABSENCE OF MARITAL LIBIDO IS THE NEW DECONSTRUCTION OF THE POSTSTRUCTURAL PARADIGM!"

Who else could make nonsense sound so important? It could be none other than pussy-power firebrand Camille Paglia. She was eating a bloody steak, her second of the evening.

"What are you doing here?" she asked.

I began to tell her about The Ring, but she cut me off. "You media neophyte! Don't you know?! You idiot! Where do you think all the money's been coming from?"

She said the French magazine conglomerate was just a front. The true financial backers of The Ring was the French drug company, PharmaJean, and that The Ring was just part of their elaborate PR campaign to make society more receptive to their new antidepressant drug, TS72. In fact, she said the entire funding of The Ring was in jeopardy if TS72 didn't receive FDA approval, and a scientific hearing on its approval was scheduled for the very next afternoon at the Manor Ballroom of the Holiday Inn in Silver Springs, Maryland.

The Psychological Drug Advisory Committee, more commonly referred to as P-DAC, was composed of twelve notable clinical research doctors who met quarterly to decide for the FDA whether the risk of new drugs was worth the reward. I watched from halfway back in the ballroom as PharmaJean executives pleaded their case before the panel. TS72 was an antidepressant specially designed for men, and that was all they wanted men to know. It worked by suppressing testosterone, lowering the libido and softening the assault of bombshell-babe imagery on every street, every billboard, every magazine. Men who had taken The Pill were 52% more likely to report they were 'Very Satisfied' with their life than men who had taken a placebo.

Thus, TS72's not so convoluted connection to me. They hoped The Ring's celebration of monogamy would subtly make it socially acceptable for men to take The Pill. PharmaJean had spent $370 million nurturing TS72 through clinical trials. They had a warehouse full of cherry-colored pills, ready to be shipped. Its first year advertising budget alone was expected to be $80 million. What was another ten million thrown my way to launch a magazine?

There were two swing votes on the P-DAC committee. Dr. Oliver Reston, from the medical school at the University of Texas, had been taking The Pill himself and noted the number of sexual harassment claims against him was down 63%. Dr. Ken Levinson was a biometrician, a stickler for detail, and his weighty opinion was that the data was statistically insignificant because the clinical trials had been conducted before Tyra Banks became a Victoria's Secret model.

The vote was called. Nine years of scientific research and $370 million and funding for The Ring magazine hung on this show of hands. "All in favor?" Five votes. "All opposed?" I counted the upstretched arms.


Somewhere, Camille Paglia was cheering. But I was depressed. To be honest I didn't care about TS72, and in fact I thought the very idea of it was frightening. But I'm a writer. I believed words were the equal to medicine, certainly in matters of the heart. I retreated to the Holiday Inn bar, where I watched the live broadcast of the Mrs USA contest with the sound turned off. Kira made it to the final three, but she lost in the final round to a woman from Alaska who's husband who had been lost during a dog sled expedition--a week later she found him in the tundra using just her heart as a honing beacon.

For two weeks, as we unwound The Ring, I was at the trough of my emotional biorhythm. Then we got a call from a banker at Goldman Sachs. A white limo picked me up and took me to their 50th floor offices. They had a bailout offer from an as-yet anonymous White Knight to keep The Ring alive.

I flew to Los Angeles. Another white limo drove me on La Brea for miles. At a stop light, suddenly the door opened and I was joined in the backseat by Playboy figurehead Hugh Hefner. He was wearing his customary silk smoking jacket over pajamas and in the dark-tinted light of the back seat I could barely see the scars along his jawline from his many face lifts. The stock of The Playboy Corporation had gone up 40% since Hugh had split up with his wife and starting screwing the twins, Mandy and Sandy.

Heff's voice was a rasp on wood. "The Playboy brand is suffering from dilution. Boobs are no more titillating than a shoulder or a kneecap. The erotic is defined by context. The Playboy Corporation is a $2 billion empire, but the Playboy brand's particular risque can only be seen in contrast to moral fervor. I can't keep it up with these twins forever, it'll kill me. I need The Ring to fan the pro-monogamy flame, against which Playboy can stand in defiant opposition."

It was a deal with the devil. But I could see the undeniable marketing logic: the two magazines were codependent, as mutually symbiotic as the proton and electron, antagonistic old lovers. I trusted my instincts. There in the back of his limousine, I signed away full control of The Ring to Heff. At a stop light I was pushed out the door, left standing at the corner of Olympic and Santa Monica, 500 miles from home.

I didn't work for three weeks. I barely left the wall-to-wall carpet squalor of my sorry bachelor condo, heating up chef boyardee on my electric stove, waiting for the mail. Finally the premier issue arrived and there she was, in nine by thirteen format, the butterly translucense of her skin fully realized in the seven color printing. I took her to my bedroom. Mrs. Runner Up USA. I opened to the centerfold, expecting to see her surrounded by her family, but--What had Heff done!-- she was buck naked, wearing only the diamond on her third finger, which was prominantly lain across her belly, reminding everyone how unattainable she was.

Then, I noticed, my god, the entire text of my article had been typeset into the photo, and my text was travelling the contours of her body, sentences running along her arms, down her legs, up to her crotch and down the other leg. I started to read it and MY GOD, it wasn't my article at all, it was in fact all of the secret emails that I had been sending her, that we had been sending back and forth for the last five weeks except hers weren't included, and so it was just my anonymous, drooling pleas of passion.

Up her thigh I reread my work:

I wish I had a coffee kiss
To compare with the ones in my mind
A single mug to share,
Both going sipping,
You winning and me stealing your winnings
From your tongue.

Staring at her 7 color image I felt the truest self in me coming out, crying out, awaking from its coma.

I reached into my beside drawer and pulled out the only thing that could save me, a bottle of unlabelled cherry-red pills. I poured one into my palm, then flipped it onto my tongue, and lay back, waiting for peace to come.