Extreme Lengths

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The things we to do to make ourselves normal. My thing I tried twice: once with nail clippers and once with floss, a mint waxed garrote. I don’t know what I was thinking. I know exactly what I was thinking. I wanted it gone.
   Both times I tried to circumcise myself, my surgeon’s table was the broad, wooden bureau in my mother’s bedroom, a detail that now strikes me as positively deranged. But the American cult of clipped dicks is a powerful medical delusion, a hygienic hallucination of high (and low) order. We’re told that uncut penises can lead to “penile cancer.” That the foreskin harbors infection; is funky, complicated, gross, Greek.
   The sex-ed film I watched in seventh grade dedicated four minutes to the mechanics of cock and ten seconds to the graphic horror of an intact penis. In grainy black-and-white, a burly hand retracted a generous foreskin. It looked like a prehistoric snake molting, like a worm from Dune, a spider monkey or kangaroo rat — an endangered species that deserves extinction because it’s weird and hateful. How many expectant mothers have told me they just want their boy to "look like the other boys”? How badly their boys do too.


   I began to dread my foreskin the year before high school, when rumors of “group showers” — a rumor I bet reached all the way to you — convinced me I was bound for discovery. A compulsive kid, I looked up “circumcision” in any dictionary I came across and dog-eared every page from Stephen King that mentioned uncut cocks (there are, strangely, many). I dreamed of joining the Germans from Europa, Europa because at least the Nazis would embrace me.
    One night, after a six-hour movie marathon (Dreamscape, My Science Project, Heartbeeps), my best friend Max told me that, during shop class, a kid pulled his hard dick from his pants and showed it off. Shop was already an unsupervised erotic playground. Mr. Capitello, the hairiest man who ever schooled me, teamed up the boys and girls and sent us into the back, where we hammered and screwed and ran wires deep inside things. The love you made made you a lamp. A cock among all this sawdust was just another few stray inches of plank. But “his was really odd,” Max said and drew its shape in the air. What he sketched looked like a pumpkin with a squared-off stem. “What was it?” he asked. “I mean, who has one like that?”
   So many questions we don’t answer because we are the answer.

I started binding the foreskin back with tape. I thought I could pass.

   At least, as an identical twin, I had company if not consolation. I don’t know how other uncut men handle it when left to themselves. When I was born in the early 1970s, nine out of ten American boys were circumcised. But in the early 1970s, my Irish-Catholic mother dropped church, divorced our father and discovered feminism. Our circumcision was the first of many things we wouldn’t show up for. It’s not like I ever spoke about our condition with my brother. His comfort with it — while we wrestled, he’d made a habit of playfully clamping down on my foreskin and stretching it like a rubber band (ah, the halcyon days of youth) — only intensified my solitude. In aisles of lockers at the community pool, I caught glimpses of other men with various lengths of extra. In those same aisles, I finally saw my father’s much larger, circumcised dick, a distinction that went undiscussed in our family, and I wondered why he had doomed me.
   I started the modification by physically binding the foreskin back with Scotch tape. I thought I could pass. But in trial stages, the cuff of tape dug into the skin and ended up an angry, crumpled mess. Then came the floss, which seemed to me the enlightened, homeopathic method. As any man with a foreskin will tell you, it’s phenomenally elastic, and mine was more of a turtleneck than pumpkin stem anyway. A good stretch can easily double the length. (Notoriously, some men are not trained in foreskin care, and the skin, over time, can tighten and make retraction impossible.) At a long extension, the foreskin becomes nearly translucent, revealing a thin webbing of flesh and a single, pointless, meandering vein.
   I had already used floss for body modification. I’d grown up with a noticeable gap between my two front teeth, the perfect slot for a dime. By sixth grade, I’d begun looping floss around them at night to guide them closer, like a makeshift retainer. The effects were temporary, but the dull ache in my gums suggested that somewhere a bone was being taught a lesson.
   So I coiled three loops around the foreskin, cinching it tight like the mouth of a burlap sack. Then I sat on my mother’s bed and watched the skin purple. Now, you do this with floss around your finger all the time, but at some point, the choked tissue begins to ache and you fear permanent damage. I think — though I never thought this far then — that I assumed the foreskin would eventually rot and fall off, leaving a clean, masculine-looking scar. Circumcision was a rite of manhood; the fact that mine was more fugitive and homebrew didn’t make it any less meaningful.
    But I hadn’t considered anything beyond aesthetics. When I finally cut the floss away so I could piss (to great relief), my bind left a tiny, red cut that lasted for days. I was close. The process would have to be faster.

I bathed the foreskin with peroxide. I checked the sharpness of the blade with paper. And then I cut.

   Hence, the clippers. They were the scissor kind, more like weensy branch trimmers. I knew there would be blood and most likely pain, but the terror of not belonging, the humiliation of difference, seemed worse. Why was I ashamed? It’s not a question I ever asked. Being different was, in itself, not traumatic; I was a lanky, redheaded twin and that was never painful. I think, in part, it was because there is something distinctly vaginal about an uncircumcised cock — the obscure, mystery organ, a saltwater vestige that must be revealed. And that femininity, that gentleness (the “intact” quality), defied what it meant to be a man. For years, I believed I could tell who was circumcised and who was not. Because circumcision happens so early (and babies who are circumcised cry louder and more often; a fact I learned from the gray pages in Omni), I thought circumcised men were more curt and remote, had literally been “de-sensitized.” Like, say, my father. Uncut men, like the bearded, jolly professors at my mother’s university, were kinder, more patient. It’s a ridiculous theory, I know, but it endures, and I will say I’m rarely wrong.
   For the surgery, my mother’s bedroom offered less an operating environment than a view. Across the street from our house was a medical clinic. Her window looked out onto the entrance. I thought: I only have to clip halfway. Not even that far. I only have to get so far that the doctors will do the rest. I had saved $60, enough (I thought) to cover the insurance. I ran the clippers under scalding water to cauterize them. I bathed the foreskin with hydrogen peroxide, the procedure I learned in Boy Scouts for wounds. I checked the sharpness of the blade with paper.
   And then I cut.

As it turned out, there were no group showers. The few times our gym teacher tried to prompt us into bathing in the moldy, unused stalls (largely, I think, for his benefit), there was an easy, spontaneous revolt, and I went to class sweaty but dignified. During the night of Senior Sleepover in the high-school gym, I confessed to Max that I was uncircumcised. He understood and went on to tell me that he’d never, honestly, had an erection.
    Years later, my college roommate turned out to be Greek, from a long line of prehistoric, monster cocks. My first male lover was a composer and uncircumcised father of four. Over time, it seemed that a cult of the uncut cock had emerged around me — in gay culture at least — and the shame of my foreskin faded, only to return as a fetish.
   A few years back, the subject of circumcision came up between my brother and me. Over the phone, I asked him if he ever resented that our father, a distant presence in our life, had allowed us to escape getting clipped while he had been.
   “Dad is not circumcised,” he said bluntly. How do you know? I asked. “I’ve seen it,” he said. “It’s not like I’ve handled it, but . . . I know.” How many misapprehensions shape us, the glimpses that make up the way we see?
    In the bedroom, the sight of blood from my new wound — never mind the immediate, lacerating pain — made me drop the clippers and race to the bathroom. I packed it as best I could, M*A*S*H-style, with cotton balls and an Ace bandage, then walked, gingerly, across the street.
   The clinic was closed.
   But the pain, I realized, had already subsided to a throb. Less gingerly, I walked back home to sit on the front steps and think. The wound, bloody as hell but about as deep as a paper cut, would scar and heal in a week. I would use that $60 for a bike. I would learn to fear other things, like “turning” gay, like the lack of a career, or whether or not I had anything, ever, to say. I’ve never spoken about this to anyone, certainly not my father. And eventually, I grew up. Intact.  

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Austin Bunn has worked as a game designer for reality television, boat carpenter, and written for The New York Times Magazine. For the record, he is no longer working on a book about intergenerational sex — thank God — nor does he have anything to do with this story.

©2004 Austin Bunn and Nerve.com