The Man in the Gray Flannel Skirt
By Jon-Jon Goulian
Random HouseCopyright © 2011 Jon-Jon Goulian
All right reserved.
It is the spring of 1985. I am sixteen years old, naked, lying on a hospital bed. I am staring fixedly at the ceiling, trying to calm myself down by thinking of my warm bed back home, and trying not to worry too much about whether those two young women in the green scrubs- medical students residents The one with the freckles, the skinny redhead, blushed when she caught me staring at her-can see the outline of my penis, not erect but still possibly visible, beneath the cold white sheet that I have pulled up to my nipples. This will be my second surgery in eleven months, so I know the drill. At least part of the drill, the part that deals with waiting anxiously for it to begin, and knowing that it will eventually end. The trick to dealing with surgery, I had learned the previous May, when I got the first of my two nose jobs (the second one coming nine years later, when I was twenty-four, and I'm thinking of getting a third one sometime soon, because my nose is out of shape again and I just can't stand it!), is to focus all of your attention on that moment eight hours later, when you are back home in your own bed, in your own room, surrounded by your own stuffed animals-the walrus, the dolphin, the seal, the starfish, and my favorite, Mr. Marvel, the koala bear hand puppet that my mother gave to me for either Hanukkah or Christmas (we celebrated both, the presents for one running seamlessly into the presents for the other) when I was seven. By focusing on that moment of pure tranquillity, you are able to avoid hyperventilating, or crying, or pulling the covers over your head. When your furry friends are on the scene, nothing is too much to handle.
So here I am, staring at the ceiling, thinking of Mr. Marvel, and of the sound of the waves crashing gently against the shore far down the hill below our house, when the two young women, who have been fussing about my bed, unwrapping syringes, and making those awful clinking noises when they put the glass lids back on jars full of cotton balls and gauze, suddenly make a big production of flipping a coin. The redhead calls "heads." It's tails. She snaps her fingers and clucks her tongue against her teeth, as if to say: "Why do I always lose this game" Following this production with one eye, I am curious as to where this game is headed. The redhead, a little nervously maybe, grabs some sort of implement, quickly smiles at me, says, "This will take just a second," and then pulls the bedsheet down below my waist, just below my penis. Using no cream at all, and what seems to be a dull razor blade, she begins roughly shaving off my pubic hair. I am sixteen, and she could easily be no older than twenty-one, a disparity in age not quite pronounced enough to remove all possibility that her pretty freckled arm grazing my penis might lead to the arousal of one or both of us. Perhaps this explains why she shaves my pubes much too quickly and awkwardly, causing painful chafing and ingrown hairs that will continue to plague me weeks after the surgery is over. It certainly explains why I quickly look away from that pretty arm and back up at the ceiling, and focus hard on that moment, eight hours later, when, for the first time in three years, I will be able to go to sleep without wondering if my phantom third testicle, the source of so much painful confusion for me, and the sudden appearance of which marked the beginning of the end of my sanity and happiness, will be waiting for me when I wake up in the morning.
Sometime in 1982, when I was thirteen years old, and very close to bucking up the courage to ask either Amy McKnight or Wendy Brazier out on a movie date, a two-inch piece of flesh, in shape and density not unlike a small hard-boiled egg, poked its way out of nowhere and into my scrotum.
My first thought, when the egg appeared, was cryptorchidism (or, as it is more commonly known, undescended testicle). When you grow up in a family of physicians-my father was a hematologist; his brother was a plastic surgeon; my mother's brother was a geneticist whose area of special interest was birth defects-terms like cryptorchidism are thrown around casually at the dinner table at family gatherings. What I didn't manage to catch at the dinner table, I more than made up for by flipping through the pages of the two dozen scientific journals to which my father regularly subscribed, and which were strewn around the house. By the age of thirteen, I had a huge store of these terms at my disposal, a store on which to draw in case I felt, or looked, a little out of sorts. Fatigue, the great all-purpose symptom, was never just fatigue. It was a sure sign of Crohn's disease, or rheumatoid arthritis, or any one of a thousand anemias. Sickle-cell anemia always came immediately to mind, but, for the sake of variety, there was also Fanconi's anemia, or myelophthisic anemia. Tingling in the hands and feet was obviously megaloblastic anemia. Joint pain could be lupus, or it could be hemochromatosis. Depending on how I chose to suffer for the rest of my life, I chose one or the other. Blue lips and fingernails, fairly common when you swim in the ocean in winter, as we often did in La Jolla, were, in my case, either pericardial tamponade or Waterhouse-Friderichsen syndrome. A fever or headache or unexplained bruising was probably thromobotic thrombocytopenic purpura (more commonly known, to amateur hypochondriacs, as Moschcowitz's syndrome), or it might also be Upshaw-Schulman syndrome and, in either case, my sure death within ten years.
And of course a mole was never just a mole. Every single mole that ever existed, if you look closely enough at it through a magnifying glass, as I always did, has irregular borders, and uneven coloring, the sure signs of cancerous tissue:
"Dad! Look! What is that little splotch"
"It's a splotch. You're fine."
"Is it a squamous cell carcinoma"
"Basal cell carcinoma"
"Acral lentiginous melanoma"
"You're not even looking!"
"I looked yesterday."
"But that was a different splotch!"
"Different splotch, same prognosis. You're fine!"
Thank God I had a doctor for a father. Always putting those fears, which he had put into my head to begin with, to rest.
But this potential undescended testicle-pending, of course, my father's diagnosis-presented a new problem. In order to get a diagnosis from my father, I would have to pull down my pants and let my father look at, and squeeze, my scrotum. His hairy arm would likely graze my penis in the process. To allow these things to happen would call everything I stood for as a proper La Jolla teenager into question. In La Jolla, just as one did not wear a skimpy Speedo bathing suit to the beach but, instead, wore the longer and more fashionable Birdwell Beach Britches (which, made out of nylon, had the added advantage of drying out very quickly), so did one not let one's father grope one's balls. To let your father grope your balls meant that you were, at a minimum, three-fourths gay.
What was required, in this case, to preserve my manhood, was a self- diagnosis. Not an easy thing to do in the early 1980s. Those of you under the age of twenty-five, you have to remember: this was before the Internet. Getting to the bottom of this lump in my sac was not simply a matter of Googling "scrotum" and "bulge." I would have to rely on my own wits. The World Book Encyclopedia, a complete set of which we had in our playroom upstairs, was
no help. I looked up "reproductive system," and saw a normal-looking man with two balls. I then considered going to one of the local libraries and looking up "testicles, disorders of," in the card catalogue. But this seemed unpromising. The small and friendly La Jolla Public Library had a limited selection of books, and would definitely be no help. The central library on the nearby campus of the University of California at San Diego (UCSD), where my father was a professor at the medical school, was another obvious option, but where the La Jolla Public Library was too limited in scope, the UCSD library seemed too vast and imposing. I would need the assistance of a librarian. She would assume she hadn't heard me correctly-"You're looking for a book on disorders of the what"-and, when I repeated myself, she would instinctively look at my crotch. With a shudder of horror, she would tell me that my search was hopeless. "I'm sorry, young man. We have many books on deformities in this library, but not the specific kind of sexual deformity you're looking for. You'll have to go to the medical school library for that, on the other side of campus." Where, of course, I could easily run into my father.
A final option was asking my parents to make a doctor's appointment for me. But then my dad, naturally, would say:
"Why What's wrong"
"Nothing much. I just have a mysterious, egg-shaped bulge in my scrotum."
"Well, let me take a look. You haven't shied away from showing me every other bulge on your body, so why start now"
Which, as we know, was out of the question.
So, with no other recourse open to me, all I could do was think back to that discussion around the dinner table many years earlier in which cryptorchidism had casually popped up. As I recalled, the condition generally occurred only when a boy had either zero or one descended testicle. If a boy already had two descended testicles, as I did, then the descent of a third testicle, according to the scientific literature, would be unnecessary, and would suggest that the boy at issue was not a boy at all but some other species entirely.
My self-diagnosis, only just begun, had reached a standstill. Relying on my wits had gotten me no further than the hopeful diagnosis that I had a quasi third testicle, and not a real one. So I decided to put the diagnosis off until later and, in the interim, take action. Instead of diagnosing the precise nature of this mysterious egg, I would try to get rid of it.
As far as I could tell, the egg had descended into my scrotum through a secret, internal doorway, and, assuming that the door was still ajar, my plan was to force the egg to go back the way it came. Initially, the plan worked beautifully. Lying flat on my back, I squeezed the egg tightly between my fingers and immediately sent it shooting back up into my body. Nothing to it. It couldn't have been easier. Out of scrotum, out of mind. When I stood up, gravity immediately pulled the egg back into the sac.
Both of my attempts to deal with the intruder had failed. The intellectual approach-tame the bastard into submission by coming up with a harmless diagnosis-had foundered on the rocks of an unlikely, but still possible, and too demoralizing to think about without going crazy, third testicle. The more aggressive approach-tame the bastard into submission by grabbing hold of his neck and throwing him out-had smacked up against a revolving door.
The third solution, the one that I very soon adopted, and which tided me over for three years, was doing my best to ignore him. This was not always easy. The scrotum is designed for two testicles. Mine was accommodating what amounted to three. As a result, as you can imagine, my scrotum felt tight, tense, stressed, overburdened. When I was swimming in cold water, and my scrotum contracted, it felt like my balls, pressing firmly against the skin, might burst through their casing and into the ocean. Imagine dog-paddling and suddenly finding three testicles bobbing near your mouth. Unless I was playing soccer, or taking a test, or watching a movie, that feeling of tension in the groin nagged at me continually, and all I could do was try to shut it out of my mind.
There was a poster on the wall of my Middle Brother's room, which he had left behind when he went to college, which said, "When life gives you lemons, make lemonade." Below the words was a cartoon of a funny- looking man with a bushy mustache, and with the front of his scalp lifted back like the open lid of an auto-drip coffeemaker. Lemons were being poured into the opening of his head, and a stream of lemonade was simultaneously pouring out of his nostrils. It was an inspiring message. The man had been given a head full of lemons, seemingly against his will, and, rather than complaining or crying about it, he was making the best of this intrusion by producing lemonade out of his nose. A fine solution. Make the best of your limitations and move on. I would do the same. Life had given me a possible third testicle, definitely against my will, and I would make the best of this intrusion by asking no girls out on dates until it permanently disappeared, and, in the meantime, resigning myself to a life of celibacy and masturbation.
At least I could still play soccer. Soccer had been everything to me since I was six years old. I had tried at least a dozen extracurricular activities-acting, singing, painting, swimming, baseball, football, tennis, basketball, water polo, surfing, sailing, skateboarding, playing the cello-and soccer was the one activity I had settled on as my ticket, so long as I continued to get those straight A's, into the college of my choice. I was so good in soccer, thanks in no small part to my incredible speed, that I was recruited to play for a special traveling soccer club, the same one my Oldest Brother had played for, called the Nomads. And I was so good playing for the Nomads (otherwise known, by opposing players taunting us, as the Gonads) that, at the age of fourteen, I was accelerated to the next highest age bracket, the Under 16s. The extra weight between my legs, easily ignorable as long as I was distracted by the heat of competition, did not make it any harder to dribble and shoot. So, in some respects at least, I could go on with my life. I would lose myself in soccer, and school, and movies, and the beach, and forget about girls for a while. The one thing I could be grateful for, the lone bright spot in this awful cloud of confusion, was that no one could see through my pants. A cleft palate, a clubfoot, a hunchback- many deformities were not so easily covered up. As long as I wore pants, my third ball was invisible to everyone but me. My confusion, when I was aware of it, was real and painful. But at least it was a private matter.
Excerpted from The Man in the Gray Flannel Skirt by Jon-Jon Goulian Copyright © 2011 by Jon-Jon Goulian. Excerpted by permission of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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