“I need your help to get my tampon out.”
10 summers ago, my third wife and I went on a family genealogy trip to Ireland. My father-in-law was one of those men whose life mission was to fill in as many branches of the family tree as possible. He was also generous, flush from a handsome payout from his recent retirement. In the summer of 2002, he made his son, his daughter, and their spouses an offer that couldn’t be refused: an all-expenses paid trip to the Emerald Isle for a fortnight of eating, drinking, hiking and poking around graveyards.
When we boarded that flight to Dublin, “Elisabeth”* and I were just 14 months into our marriage. It was my third, but her first, and she was already growing certain that she’d made a terrible mistake. We were good friends, intellectually compatible and from similar backgrounds. We looked good together; the kind of couple that elicits remarks like “Seeing you two together gives me hope for true love” from single friends. Our cordiality and ease together wasn’t an act. We liked each other.
Elisabeth and I had very little sexual chemistry. After making so many impulsive choices based on lust when I was younger, I was ready to settle for warmth over heat. Increasingly, as the marriage wore on, Elisabeth wasn’t nearly so willing to settle. By the time we passed our first anniversary, we were fighting daily, in that civil way that involved a lot of anxious whispers and very little shouting. And by the time we left for Ireland, we hadn’t had sex in more than a month.
Perhaps it was the return to the land of her ancestors that gave her the courage to demand the divorce. On our third night in Ireland, in a tiny room in a B&B in rural Wicklow, Elisabeth told me -- tearfully but with resolve -- that she wanted out. I pleaded, keeping my cracking voice low because my in-laws were on the other side of a paper-thin wall. My wife stayed firm. We stayed up until dawn, talking and crying. As the sun rose, I agreed to the divorce.
Because Elisabeth and I were both good WASPs (I’m half-Jewish, but my demeanor comes from the Anglican side of the family), we decided to pretend that nothing was wrong for the remaining 11 days of the family trip. Though I later learned my mother-in-law suspected something was amiss, we played the part of the still happily married couple (“We might try for a baby next year!”) from Bantry to Ballycastle. When we were alone in our hotel bedrooms at night, we watched TV or read, speaking as little as possible and with exaggerated courtesy.
On our last night in Ireland, we stayed in Navan. After a last grand family dinner, Elisabeth and I retreated to our room. She went to the bathroom to shower. Half an hour went by while I waited impatiently on the bed, leafing through a magazine, my bladder uncomfortably full. I didn’t want to pee in front of Elisabeth anymore, and there were no public restrooms in the B&B. Just as I was about to go outside to whizz behind a tree, my wife came out of the bathroom. She was naked, something she hadn’t been in front of me since we’d agreed to separate.
“My tampon’s stuck. I’m sorry, but I think I need your help to get it out.” Elisabeth’s face was red with embarrassment and frustration. “It’s never happened before. I tried to change it before we left for dinner and I couldn’t. I’ve been trying for half an hour but it’s wedged so high I can’t get to it with my fingers. I can’t find the string. I don’t want to leave it in overnight.”
Elisabeth and I may not have had much sexual heat together, but we’d always had kindness and at least flashes of empathy. I thought of what the last few minutes must have been like for her before she came out of the bathroom, as the realization set in that she couldn’t get the tampon out without my help. From her face, I guessed she’d tried absolutely everything (including, she told me later, using her toothbrush handle) to avoid having to ask for such intimate assistance from a man she was determined to leave.
I told her yes, of course, I’d help. Awkwardly, I got up and began to walk toward her. Without meeting my eyes, Elisabeth pointed to the bathroom, telling me softly to cut my nails and wash my hands first.
When I came out, Elisabeth was lying on her back on the bed, an unopened bottle of lubricant beside her. I’d packed it in the optimism that the aphrodisiac of travel would rekindle our lukewarm sex life. But it had never left the suitcase.
I opened the bottle, lubed up my fingers, and asked Elisabeth if she was ready.
“Yes,” she said, her voice resigned and certain. She drew her knees up as if she were in stirrups. “It’s really up there. Go slow.”
I slid my fingers into her vagina, my heart pounding. Suddenly, embarrassingly, I was erect -- more a conditioned physiological response than evidence of real lust. I needn’t have worried that my soon-to-be-ex-wife had noticed; Elisabeth was studying the ceiling, trying to breathe deeply as I tentatively probed inside of her.
Somehow, the tampon had worked its way behind Elisabeth’s cervix and gotten itself wedged in there. I could feel it but couldn’t grasp it at first.
“I’m going to have to push a little harder,” I told her.
Her voice was tight and pleading. “Just get it out, Hugo. Be gentle but do what you need to do to get it out. If you can.”
I’m not sure how long it took, perhaps three interminable minutes as I worked my fingers into places they’d never been when we were first in love and playing at being passionate. At last, I found the string (which had wound itself around the tampon), and pulled; it all slid out easily. Elisabeth gave a little grunt of deliverance: “Jesus.”
She jumped up from the bed, and we had a strange fumbling moment as she reached for the tampon to go throw it away, and I didn’t let it go. I finally let her take it from my fingers, we each whispered a quick and simultaneous, “sorry,” and Elisabeth disappeared into the bathroom. I remembered suddenly how badly I needed to piss, and I went outside to relieve myself behind the parking lot. Strangely -- or maybe not -- my cock was still hard as a rock, and I had to wait a painful while before my erection subsided enough to let me urinate.
When I was finished, I stood staring at the Irish sky, feeling a greater sadness and sense of imminent loss than I’d felt at any time on the trip. I let the tears come.
When I came back to the room, Elisabeth was out of the shower, with nothing on but the towel wrapped around her hair and a fresh tampon string dangling between her legs. We looked at each other, and I knew with absolute certainty that I was seeing her naked for the last time.
“Thank you for that,” she murmured.
“Of course,” I replied, biting back the “I love you” that rose instinctually in my throat.
Elisabeth smiled. “Well,” she said with the laugh she used when we both needed comforting, “we’ll always have Navan.”
*name changed. Duh.