From the ages of 17 to 19, I believed that God had cursed me with a swollen left testicle that was the size and shape of a large pear. I was suffering from a condition known as hydrocele, which basically meant there was an exceptionally large collection of fluid around my testicle that made it look like I'd put a 100-watt lightbulb down my pants. It was the result of blunt-force trauma—my loving sister thought it was hilarious to kick me in the crotch whenever I was napping. As traumatic as it might seem to be cursed with a grapefruit-sized sperm-machine, hydrocele isn't life-threatening and can be corrected with a pretty simple surgical procedure. Unfortunately, I told no one about my condition and lived with it for about two years.
You may have a hard time believing that a young man would—or could—hide this condition from his parents and friends. While I'll admit it wasn't easy, at the time it seemed absolutely necessary. Throughout my pubescent years, my life was immersed in the Evangelical world of Clear Lake, Iowa, where church camp and rapture novels made up the entirety of my cultural experience. The tiny Christian school I attended (there were six students in my graduating class) offered little in the way of sex education; mostly, we were told to fear our own bodies and condemn anyone who aroused our dark impulses. For a time I treated my crotch like it was the dreaded head of Medusa—one glance and it would turn me into stone.
The swelling continued until my scrotum puffed out like one of Dizzy Gillespie's cheeks.
But condemnation and promise of Hellfire still wasn't enough of a deterrent for me. Dealing with my hungry teenage penis was like picking up a hot kettle with nowhere to set it down. With great shame, I masturbated constantly and stuck my dick in every vaguely vaginal orifice I could find—couch cushions, vacuum hoses… Like most children growing up in an aggressively moralistic culture, I thought I was the only one who dealt with these impulses. So there was no one I could talk to it about—confessing to masturbation would be enough to get me kicked out of school. Coming in the palm of your hand or inside of an unwed uterus was utterly disgraceful. Worse yet was if you were ever caught with another boy—another boy, equally tortured by his own body, desperate for somewhere to put that hot kettle.
Such was the case for me when I was 17. When my left testicle began to ache and turn an angry shade of purple, I believed it was God's punishment for an afternoon I'd spent with a fellow (Christian) male. We spilled our seed together in the shower and watched it mix atop the wet porcelain and clog up the drain. With the orgasm came the sobering acknowledgment of God's eyes beaming down on us.
The swelling continued until my scrotum puffed out like one of Dizzy Gillespie's cheeks. It was an unwelcome appendage that became difficult to navigate. Whenever I made the mistake of crossing my legs, performing a cartwheel, or sitting down too quickly, I'd wince in pain. Then it became numb and hard. It calcified and hung low in the summer humidity, like a potato shoved into wet pantyhose.
When Judd Nelson asked Molly Ringwald if she wanted to see the picture of a guy with elephantiasis of the nuts in The Breakfast Club, she refused in disgust. "How do you think he rides a bike?" Nelson continued. How indeed.
As long as I didn't shower with the other boys in gym class (I hid in the stall until they were finished), it was easy to keep the little alien fetus between my legs a secret. I was successful for about a year until I dropped out of school and began working at a Winnebago factory in Forest City, Iowa. As weird as that gig sounds, it wasn't an uncommon route for kids who went to my school. You worked at the factory, picked up a marijuana addiction, and began dating one of the girls who stitched the seat belts.
"When I lowered my trousers, the doctor gasped, stared, and then left the room."
I was having plenty of sex, but keeping my little secret hidden from the woman I was bumping pelvises with was exhausting. Years later I heard artist Brigid Berlin explain that she never wanted men to see how fat she was during sex, so she'd always be naked and under the covers before they came into the bedroom. I could relate. When my girlfriend and I would strip down to our awkward, juvenile skin, I'd always make the sure the room was dark, the blankets were plentiful, and the sex positions were minimal.
By this time, I'd moved out on my own and the world was becoming a very complex place. My biblical literalism was being challenged by critical thinking. Morality and desire were in a constant battle. Years later I would become a thick-skinned atheist, but at 18, I still hated myself for the sex and drugs that had become a part of my everyday life. Though by that time I was starting to accept that the world was more complex than the mythology I'd been raised in.
I wasn't ready to accept the idea that the universe was an explosive mix of complex beauty and untethered chaos—but I was ready to see a doctor. I'd had very little contact with hospitals as a child, and had little idea how to navigate that world as an adult. I'd explained all the details of my fist-sized testicle to a woman over the phone, but she was just the receptionist. After repeating my story to a half dozen other people, I was eventually penciled in for an appointment with a urologist.
My assumption was that doctors—particularly urologists—had seen everything. Women with penises growing out of their thighs, men with a single blinking eye inside their asshole. Everything. So if I was going to reveal my soft-ball sized secret to anyone, a doctor seemed like the best bet. But when I walked into his office, lowered my trousers and hopped upon his papered table, the doctor gasped. He literally gasped. Then stared. Then closed the door.
Once he'd composed himself, the doctor diagnosed me with a hydrocele, explaining that "there's actually nothing technically wrong with the testicle. It still functions, and it's not cancerous. We can do surgery to drain the fluid, but it would be considered a cosmetic surgery."
At first I didn't think I'd heard him right. After all, this little anvil in my underoos was pulling so hard on my cremaster muscle I could feel it in my gut. (Though I would not have described it that way at the time, having little knowledge of anatomy or the films of Matthew Barney.)
I thought, Cosmetic surgery? As in vanity? As in nonessential? Priced right alongside a nose job and calf implants?
I was a Midwesterner, a farm boy raised in poverty on government assistance. The idea of going into a doctor to get cosmetic surgery on my balls seemed as weird and frivolous as a pet monkey in an iron lung. My insurance from the Winnebago factory wouldn't cover the cost of the operation. But it was explained that I wouldn't have to pay for it up front, so I scheduled the surgery with the promise to work off the debt in installments—a promise that, 13 years later, I have yet to make a single payment on.
I was informed that on the day of the surgery they would not let me leave without a guardian driver, so I was forced to bring my grandmother into the dark circle of truth about my asymmetrical scrotum. Grandma always represented a maternal security that was eternally welcome. She was a good sport, staying with me in the surgery prep room while a morphine drip fucked me up, the nurses shaved my sack, and I Love the 80s played on the TV.
After the surgery, while I was still pleasantly high—before the mind-shattering pain set in—she gingerly pushed my wheelchair to the parking lot, then drove me to her house, where I remained in bed for a week, watching 90210 reruns and choking down her Norwegian cooking while I moaned in pain.
"Try having that treasure chest between your thighs sliced like a Thanksgiving turkey."
Today I'm all about pills. Can't get enough of them. I'd swallow an iPod shuffle if convinced I'd get the same effect as Oxycontin. But back then, I had a deadly fear of medication. While I was recuperating at my Grandmother's house, my dad's voice was still a locked groove spinning constantly in my head: "The word pharmacy is derived from the Greek 'pharmakeia,' which translates to witchcraft, or sorcery." Therefore eating pills was tantamount to engaging in a Satanic orgy.
So I refused all the prescribed opiates and just dealt with the pain. Or at least endured it, because as bad as you may think the healing process of a broken bone or third-degree burns are, try having that treasure chest between your thighs sliced like a Thanksgiving turkey, sewn back together, and then throb like a screaming infant for weeks. With no drugs.
After a while, I moved back to my apartment and was cared for by my girlfriend, who made a big show about me not telling her about my condition or the surgery. She was hysterical, but I was sure it was an act. After all, how could she not have noticed my giant organ slapping her in the ass like a fleshy blackjack every time we had sex?
She'd most likely been in some mind-twisting state of denial, hoping the issue would just go away if she just didn't acknowledge it. I was 19 by then, and was getting too old for such childishness. After a few weeks of constantly sitting on bags of ice while I smoked weed and discovered the novels of Tom Robbins, the swelling went down and I once again had a balanced bag of balls. Staring at my now-restored coin purse in the mirror, I realized there was nothing shameful or evil about my body, and was looking forward to the years ahead of shame-free sex.
Until I discovered crabs.
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