For months, I had quietly denied that something was wrong — bad wrong — with my wiener. The problem was that it was beginning to look just like an actual wiener — not the smooth, fresh, glistening Ball Park frank that causes one to salivate even before you’ve slipped it from the package and onto the grill, but that off-brand hot dog of dubious origins that becomes wrinkled and leathery if microwaved for too long.
Most men would have carted themselves down to the emergency room at the first sign of an affliction like mine, but my penis had endured plagues far worse than this. As an adolescent, I once watched my wang shed its skin for three days, then emerge as immaculate as it was in my infancy — only bigger. Once you’ve seen that — and admittedly, it happened more than once — it takes something more than a weird little dermatological problem to spur you toward the assistance of a medical professional.
But then came the spots, itchy and inflamed. What’s worse, it felt goddamned great to scratch them. Soon, no woman would come within twenty yards of my raw, exposed member. I couldn’t blame them — I wanted to distance myself from the diseased dick as well.
At the onset of my condition, I was still dating a woman named Marissa. I managed to conceal things from her pretty easily. Because I’m not overly fond of blow jobs, most of our sexual activity took place in areas that were lit “romantically.” One evening, though, I stepped out of the shower while Marissa was in the bathroom. She grabbed my dick and squatted before me, then looked up with alarm. “What the fuck? Is this normal?”
“Yes. I think the stubble from your bikini line irritated me somehow.” My quick thinking gave me a twinge of inner pride.
Marissa held my penis in her hand for a moment, staring at it like a ceramics project gone slightly wrong. Then she said, “No. Nope,” stood up, and walked back into the bedroom. Her phone calls dwindled after that. I spent many lonely hours trying to convince myself it was coincidence.
Simply put, my fear of doctors prevailed over my fear of my penis turning black and falling off in the middle of the night. I believed that things would simply clear up within a few weeks. (Self-delusion was a concept I mastered early in life: in eleventh grade, I convinced myself that getting a perm would never impede my ability to get a date.) Of course, “things” didn’t clear up, but only varied in intensity and type.
It was only after a girl offered me a handjob that I caved. We were at a bar. The girl kept slurring, “Do you want a hand job? Do you? Come on. Come on me!” with a delightful giggle. It was when I was forced to decline that handjob that I knew it was time.
At the doctor’s office, a young receptionist with red hair and excellent dental coverage smiled at me while updating my insurance information. I shamelessly gawked at her cleavage as I accepted the paperwork.
“You look very healthy,” she said. When I assured her that I was quite healthy, she smiled some more.
When my doctor came into the examination room, he looked as though he was in a tremendous hurry. Most of our previous meetings had been brief, with an exam and a prescription delivered in less than five minutes. Before I could even begin to tell him my troubles, he said, “I’ve been on call all week, and I can’t even tell if I’m still awake. These assholes at the nursing home are killing me.” He pursed his lips and produced a lukewarm smile. “So what’s up with you?”
I had taken great pains to prepare for this moment. I exhaled deeply, then stood up and walked across the room toward the door. When I reached it, I turned around and went back to the examination table.
The doctor raised his eyebrows.
“Did you hear that?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said. “Is that coming from where I think it is?”
“For a while now.”
He pursed his lips again and made a small praying motion with his hands. “Well, you’re getting older. Your knees and ankles will begin to pop like that, especially if you’re sedentary. Get some more exercise. How’s everything else? You look a little pale.” He began to feel my glands and take my pulse.
“Everything else is good,” I said. “Real good. Well, there was one thing I was wondering about. I’ve got this. . . I don’t know . . . rash.”
He frowned and began to wash his hands without saying a word. While the doctor turned his back to retrieve a pair of latex gloves, I unbuckled my belt and dropped my pants. I was nervous, and the room was cold: there were few combinations more ill-suited for baring one’s penis. I imagined my doctor going home to his wife that night and saying, “You should have seen it today, honey! That older Keck boy has a penis like a peanut!” He was only my doctor, but I didn’t want to go down in his personal lore as the man with the curiously shrunken dick. In the place I live, things like this have a way of making themselves public: notes on charts fall under the eyes of chatty medical assistants, and suddenly every one in town knows that Chris Ward has only one testicle. I had also heard horror stories from friends who had gone for ambiguous tests: cotton swabs attached to long metal rods plunged into the urethra, tissue samples snipped from the foreskin. There was no way this could have a happy ending.
When my physician turned around, he stared at my groin and said:
Normally, I’m delighted with this type of reaction. I have a tall and thin build, and people seem to expect my penis to reflect my delicate stature. However, the doctor’s face didn’t relay admiration. In fact, it didn’t even register as being the face of a calm, indifferent medical professional. It bore a look of genuine horror.
The good news was that my fears about dick size were unfounded. The doctor was still four feet away from me. He looked up, saw me staring at him and made an attempt to compose himself, shrugging his shoulders and sighing. After he snapped on his gloves, the doctor kneeled and grabbed my dick as if it were a fraternity brother he hadn’t seen in twenty years. He squeezed and pinched my testicles and shaft for several seconds, then took a bit of foreskin between his index finger and thumb and held my rod as though it were a dead mouse his cat had left on the doorstep. With his free hand, the doctor poked a few areas, then let my damaged dick drop back into its preferred left-leaning hang.
He shook his head. “What the hell did you do to this thing?”
It was the first time I had heard a physician refer to a portion of my anatomy in the same manner someone might address a mangled used car.
“Nothing out of the ordinary,” I said, though his look indicated that I had done something quite extraordinary.
“What do you masturbate with?” He had a notepad out and was poised for my answer.
“My hand.” I thought this was fairly obvious, but recalling several experiences with child-safety flotation devices in my teenage years, I understood the necessity of his question.
The doctor shook his head again. “No, what sort of lubrication do you use? Anything unnatural?”
Here I pulled my pants back on, cleared my throat and looked shamefully at the floor as I recounted nearly eighteen years’ worth of the various products applied to my penis. Vaseline, lotions of all sorts, K-Y Jelly, baby oil — these items didn’t even cause the good doctor to raise an eyebrow. It was when I rattled off the litany of shampoos and soaps, cooking oil, motor oil, 3-in-1 oil, toothpaste, Neosporin, Smuckers Apple Jelly, Vicks VapoRub, Papa John’s garlic-butter sauce, Chapstick, sunblock, Hawaiian Tropic Tanning Oil, Speed Stick, butter, margarine (for what it’s worth, margarine most definitely holds up better than butter) and ice cream that he reacted adversely. (Many of these items I used more than once, but the ice cream resulted in such a catastrophic mess that I must strongly discourage its use.)
When I was finished, the doctor merely looked at me and blinked. I looked away and tried to imagine what med-school course could have prepared him for this.
Seconds passed in silence. “Don’t touch yourself for three weeks,” he said. “Never use anything but Vaseline or K-Y when you do masturbate, and consider yourself lucky.”
“Lucky?” My voice rose into a falsetto.
The doctor rubbed the bridge of his nose in a manner I found painfully familiar. I often did the same thing when I was forced to explain something quite simple to one of my particularly dense students. “Do you remember what you just told me? You’ve put chemicals that were meant for automobiles and cooking on the most sensitive part of your body. When you die, you should have it cut off and sent to a research lab.”
It was what I always wanted to hear: my penis was a marvel fit for serious scholarly research. But it was a bittersweet revelation. My little man would end up in the mason jar reserved for freakish wonders, not the decanter marked “Huge Discovery.” It was more likely to wind up in the gawkish halls of a Ripley’s Believe It or Not! museum than the Smithsonian.
I gave serious thought to the urges that often sent me to my knees, my palm slick with whatever lubricating substance was most conveniently at hand. It occurred to me that all of my recent visits to the doctor had involved either my head or my butt. (My family has an unfortunate genetic inclination toward depression on one side and hemorrhoids on the other.) And now, my genitals.
“Look,” my doctor was saying. “Can you do that? Can you just not touch it? Just don’t touch it. It’s that simple. You’re a grown man. Don’t. If it isn’t looking better in two weeks, call me, but just . . . just don’t.” He shook his head, peeled off his gloves and walked out of the room.
As I left, I stopped at the receptionist’s desk to pay. My chart lay open in front of her. The doctor’s handwriting was not as illegible as I would have liked, and his diagnosis — penis excoriated from masturbation — stood out on the page like a marquee advertising my shame.
When I handed the receptionist a check, she didn’t even crack a smile.
This article originally appeared in Nerve’s Personal Essay in 2004.