As a rule, after a breakup, you never again see your boyfriend’s penis. So when John dragged me into the bathroom that night, I was a little taken aback.
It was only a couple of weeks after the breakup, and as soon as I walked into church (don’t worry; our church is as pagan as it is Christian; we’re good, free-thinking homosexuals), he took my arm and said, “Come here, I want to show you something.”
Now, the last time a man brought me into a public restroom … well, that’s another story. The point is, I didn’t know what to expect—especially when he started undoing his pants.
And suddenly, there it was—glittering under the fluorescent light, a shiny silver hoop emerging from the head of his dick. The hoop itself was rather thin, but it loomed large—and painful—in my imagination. It seemed the final barrier between me and this part of John that I had loved for so long—like a “no trespassing” sign, a reminder that what I had once tenderly caressed was irrevocably off limits.
John had wanted a P.A. for a long time, but I had always pooh-poohed the idea. I’d had experience with them before, and I knew that they could be kind of fun—as a novelty, a momentary diversion—but the idea of facing it each night, my beautiful boyfriend’s beautiful member forever foreshadowed by this formidable, glinting piece of steel, was hardly appetizing.
But my opinions no longer mattered. That was the point, I realized, standing in the bathroom, eye to eye with John’s defiant penis and the bossy piece of metal that had taken possession of it. The piercing was his declaration of independence, a way of demarcating his life with and without me.
(No one seems certain of the association between Prince Albert and the piercing named after him. Whether Victoria’s dear husband had such a piercing himself remains a mystery, as far as I can determine. Legend has it that he had the piercing done because his dick was so big it needed to be secured in his trousers to avoid an obvious bulge. If true, this could explain why Victoria so dramatically mourned his passing for forty years. It would indeed be ironic if the queen whose name is synonymous with sexual repression had had such a kinky husband. But, as Ted Haggard and Larry Craig among others have taught us, it’s the uptight ones you most have to watch out for.)
The human race has a long tradition of commemorating internal change on the body. And in that season of breakups, when several of our friends—some even longer-established couples than us—separated over the course of a few months, there was a lot of change going around. One of our female friends bleached her hair after her breakup and now styled it in dramatic spikes that screamed defiance. A male friend grew a devilish goatee. (Why, I wondered, does everyone choose the dramatic, slightly risqué path? Why doesn’t anyone start wearing Laura Ashley sundresses or get their hair permed into Pre-Raphaelite ringlets?)
According to Hollywood gossip, Roseanne and Tom Arnold wore tattoos of each other’s names, and had to have them removed after their divorce. Not quite as easy for Roseanne as changing her legal name back to Barr, but perhaps more meaningful. Of course, the fact that he had chosen to stamp “Rosey” on his ass should have been a sign from the beginning, but I won’t speculate.
You could say that my relationship with John was framed by piercings. We’d been dating only a month when I casually mentioned that I’d always fantasized about getting a nipple ring. That was all John needed to hear. Within minutes, I found myself at the piercing parlor down the street, lying shirtless on a table in a walled-off area of the shop.
I’d had both ears pierced long ago and had barely felt it. But, as I soon discovered, there’s a lot more sensation in the nipple. John held my hand and tried to make me laugh as the piercer leaned over my chest with his shockingly large needle. I tried to get all Zen—focusing on my breath, convincing myself the process would be over very quickly.
But Buddha wasn’t with me that day. You know those moments in life when time stands still? Well, that needle was in my nipple for all of two seconds, but those two seconds compressed the pain of two hours. And I screamed bloody murder.
The space we were in was a glorified cubicle, its walls a few feet lower than the ceiling. Everyone throughout the shop could hear me, and suddenly there were titters of laughter everywhere. “Sorry!” I called out when the pain had passed and I was able to laugh at myself. I imagined my scream frightening someone in a distant corner who had a needle poised over another victim: one slip of the wrist and a testicle could be history.
My nipple is a constant reminder of John, who held my hand and gave me the courage to go through with it. He gave me the courage to do a lot of things, and the nipple ring has become a symbol of that. Love changes you. It leaves its mark.
So when I was confronted with his piercing—which marked the end of our relationship, not its beginning—I had to wonder what it—and I—meant.
The wound was still fresh, the skin around the hole disturbingly red. And while a nipple ring doesn’t take up that much room on a chest, a P.A. is hard to miss: no matter how big your dick, that piece of metal becomes its dominant characteristic.
Is this what our breakup had done to him—a mutilation? Or, worse yet, was this his way of commemorating the relationship itself? Was our time together that painful that he needed to mark it through violence?
Penises are sacred. The thought of harm to my own causes as visceral a reaction as similar thoughts about my eyes. You could say that I am my penis. At some primal level, I think most men would agree. We identify with our penises in a way that other parts of our bodies will never know. We even give them names. (For a long time, mine was known as Brad.)
Decades before (I won’t say how many), my foreskin had been sacrificed to honor someone else’s belief system. And now I look enviously upon the few that I see. Sure, they’re not particularly attractive, but it’s a question of function over form in this case. Because someone else made an arbitrary decision on my behalf when I was completely helpless, I will never know how much sensitivity I’ve lost in my most sensitive place.
An old friend of mine used to say: the first breakup never takes. John and I had broken up twice before. I think that piercing was his way of saying: enough already! It was like cutting an umbilical cord. At some level, I think he thought it would make him less attractive to me, put the kibosh on any chance of getting back together. I hope I’m not that superficial. Even when it comes to penises, beauty is only skin-deep.