The Sexual Power of Sadness

“Candy attracted a retinue of suitors whose protective instincts could be aroused by a woman’s tears.”

Jerry was Candy’s boyfriend—sometimes her fiancé—but he was not the only man in her life. It was Earl who took her to the movies, holding her hand as he led her into the dark theater; it was Roger who tickled her ribs in the lunchroom, making her giggle; and it was George who watched over her—constantly, silently, worshipfully. Many other male clients would comfort her in her distress in whatever ways they could—a quiet word, a gentle pat. She attracted a retinue of suitors whose protective instincts could be aroused by a woman’s tears.

Candy was short and had Down syndrome. One thing that distinguished her from most of the women clients was her willowy figure, her small waist. That may have been part of her appeal, but what really drew men to her was the power of her pain. Some mornings when I walked past her work station, she’d hold up a package of lozenges, point to her neck, and say in a weak voice, “Got sore throat.” Other days it might be cramps or an upset stomach or irritated eyes. Sometimes her unhappiness went unexplained: she’d be on the workfloor, slowly and silently assembling a mosaic glass, while a tear trickled down her face. Occasionally I’d notice her walking up the ramp with a limp, her head down, holding Jerry’s arm for support. Ailments evoke solace and commiseration; they allow life to revolve around suffering and sympathy.

At lunch she’d pat Wanda or Jerry on the back if one of them felt persecuted by a supervisor, but usually it was Candy herself, weeping quietly, who drew looks of concern from George and Earl, and words of consolation from Wanda and Jerry: while Jerry was the verbal center of their lunch table, Candy was its emotional center. Occasionally she announced to the lunchroom that someone was victimizing her. “Sharon Platt’s buggin’ me!” she’d shout, or “Leroy Fletcher stole my apple!”

My first day at the Center, Candy showed me a piece of paper with Jerry’s name on it. “I’m gonna marry him—I am—I’m gonna marry Jerry Thompson,” she told me, proud and certain. Yet their frequent spats—whining, weeping, “I’m-not-gonna-sit-by-her, she-don’t-like-me-no-more” spats—would set the stage for hand-holding reconciliations, in their endless cycle of breaking up and making up. As the rockiness of their romance suggests, anguish is the precursor to tenderness.

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