SEX, OR by Brett Milam

We curled back-to-back, pretending to sleep, wondering whose weighted blanket of shame was heaviest. 

S-E-X. 

What should have hung as an inviting, tacky neon billboard above your bedroom—turned on once the kid was finally asleep after half-a-dozen fits and starts, and when the teenage brother’s “SHOOT HIM! SHOOT HIM!” video game playing commentary ended, and the latest episode of Friends turned off downstairs and your parents’ footsteps retreated behind their own bedroom door with their own shame, and when the fluff ball dog stopped hacking and scratching the carpet through her late-night dinner—it instead hung like a pall over the bedroom.

Sex, or her thinking I didn’t think she was beautiful enough because I couldn’t get hard; sex, or her thinking I must be gay because she couldn’t get me hard. She mentioned both at different times. 

Sometimes she charged I was only with her because she was hot and other times, like when sex became a dirty word between us, it was that she wasn’t hot enough

Gay it was then. 

Sex, or me thinking my penis must have something wrong with it, so I went to the urologist down the street from our houses, let him examine my penis and balls and tell me it was all in my head because it was a new relationship with new jitters (thanks, doc); sex, or me sucking oxygen in like the NFL players do on the sidelines to enhance athletic endurance, except instead of oxygen, it was the brown sludge of shame, impossibly expanding within my lungs. 

Shame is the feeling that sits behind pain, the thinnest of films unseen and for which nobody, including me, wants to peel back. 

I used to protest in the beginning. 

“I can use my fingers?”

“My tongue works?” 

“We can just kiss?”

But even those only went so far and eventually you thought my fingers weren’t as good anymore, either. You said that. That they were better that time behind your shed in the rain, where you quivered to your knees. 

It was as if I were physically deteriorating under the shame. 

So, I stopped protesting and joined you in pretend-sleep land; the better to excoriate myself and cleave off any hope from my brain. 

When I would come over, walking between our yards, out one backdoor, through one gate, then another and through another backdoor and up the stairs with you, I sometimes thought, “Maybe this time will be different. Maybe it’ll work.”

That thinking died along with the protests, too. 

Sex, or how depression knows no land for which its long shadow can’t reach. Unbeknownst to you, you were in a ménage à trois with me and depression and I was only able to pleasure one of you.

I didn’t set any fires after each of our failed sexual experiences, but I was an arsonist of my own mind, which is a lot like setting fires to abandoned houses in a forgotten part of the country.

After we would try a few times, unsuccessfully, you would roll off of me with a parting whisper, “It’s okay,” pull your pajama pants back up and go to sleep. Or, what pantomimed sleep. 

I would lay there on my side, my back hot, still feeling the heat of your back, and wanting never to look you in the eye again. Facing you was facing me, a reminder of my inadequacy. 

Loser. Pathetic. Worthless. Those words dive bombed into my brain, setting off their fires and burning away the spiral I was already half-way down. 

I thought about death often while back-to-back with you. Thinking you deserved better than what you were not getting. And that death would be a preferable option to the shame that was already suffocating me.

Our love was not untamable in that way, because shame stood at the ready to rein us in, to make the bedroom a place where we preferred the cold waters of anxiety to the depths of our reality. 

We never did get used to those waters or learn how to navigate them. I don’t know if that was our undoing. 

But love breaks apart in too many pieces to know which piece has the most jagged edge. 

Sex, or the broken pieces we left discarded. 

Sometimes I wonder if your new man, now-husband, ignites your passions or is he another in a long line of arsonists. 


Brett Milam is a writer in Cincinnati, who works at a nonprofit educating people on organ, eye and tissue donation. He also loves fostering dogs to give them a safe place before they find their furever home.

Art by Bob Schofield @anothertower

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