An Unfillable Hole

Friday, September 11, 2015 | 0 Comment(s)

The first time I went to college I was 17.

Something about the pure joy of teenaged freedom must have disagreed with me, because I immediately fell ill with mononucleosis.  I did not get it the fun way.  It makes total sense that I had trouble digesting the sweet nectar of freedom after my parent's strict and unconditional love.   I had led a drug-free, out on a school night-free, having friends over-free lifestyle. Yes, alcohol is a drug.

If you add these straight-laced policies to the fact that, at the time, I was rolling into school each day wearing a yarmulke and talit katan hanging down the sides of my wide-whale corduroys, you should get the picture that, for me, high school was not "the best time of my life."  I mean, who doesn't imagine their optimal high school experience as escaping the people in their hometown to hang out with their youth group friends an hour's drive away in upstate New York.

I envisioned college as an everyday upstate New York, and I had been desperate to inhabit that space for the past two years.  But, like any drama worth its mustard, this play would have two acts.  The particular strand of mono that infected me clogged my insides for a feverish two months.  My failing body forced me to take a medical deferral and return the next fall.

Artist rendering: But the green color is accurate
The second time I went to college I was 18.

I had spent the majority of the past year on an Israeli kibbutz, and I had discovered that cheap alcohol is equal parts sexual and vomitrocious.

College fit me like the retro-hippie bell-bottoms favored by so many in my incoming classmates.  It hugged me tightly in all the right places and then exploded out in unexpected bursts of colorful creativity. Since I still hadn't even so much as whiffed Mary Jane secondhand at that time, I can't say I was a true hippie, but I sure dug their colors man.

The number one aspect of college that both stands out in my mind and propels me into a nostalgic time-suck, is that friends were everywhere.  EVERYWHERE! You couldn't walk 3 minutes across campus without stopping to chat with 4 or 5 people you knew.  College was unproductive in the best possible sense.

One group of my friends were pierced and played a ton of online video games like Quake, Quake II, and Quake III. They liked Quake. And I liked them. And Quake. Mind-numbing, frag-accumulating, time-wasting Quake. Without cell phones, we had to find more creative ways to stare at a screen for hours on end.

It was barely October when I decided I wanted my own tongue-ring.  I didn't need it.  I didn't think I needed it.  I wanted it in that pure revolutionary sense that consumes all children when their elbows get too sharp for the inside of their parents' shell.  It was with a needle through flesh that I would puncture the calcium carbonate egg that had protected my adolescence.  I was breaking out with a baptism of my own choosing, and this would serve as practice on the way to growing secure in the knowledge of my own desire.

Everything was transpiring smoothly when my friend Dave casually mentioned that there was an artery in the tongue that, if nicked, could cause to a person bleed out.  I did not take that news well.  In the hierarchy of my personal needs at that time, fear of death ├╝ber-trumped need to rebel.

So, like the pretend adult I really was, I called up my dad to get his medical opinion on this existence of this whole blood-balloon artery in my tongue.

I think my dad was conflicted.  On the one hand his youngest son is asking nervously about a medical anomaly that ANY piercer with ANY training would know to avoid.  Even if they did cut it, unless you were getting the procedure done in the middle of the Australian outback, you should be able to make it to a hospital before anything fatal goes down. On the other hand, he's not thrilled with the idea of me jamming a bar through my mouth, nor is he above fucking with me a bit purely for his own amusement.

He took a middle of the road approach, where he spelled out the minimal risk of the procedure, while taking pains NOT to refute the notion of a dangerous tongue artery which, if damaged, could cause somewhat catastrophic consequences.

On my end of the receiver -- yes, an actual phone receiver -- all I heard was his general lack of concern.  I mean, I knew he was enjoying fucking with me, but at the same time his mind games meant that this piercing couldn't be that bad. To this day he is a man who worries about worrisome things.

Just as with college enrollment, the process took two attempts.  My first adrenaline-fulled trip down the Berlin Turnpike in Connecticut led to a CLOSED sign hanging in the window of the freshly-painted white wooden building with pink trim. The thwarted attempt crashed my adrenaline into a brick wall of frustrated impotence.

I looked up the shops hours before my two friends, one with a tongue ring -- the other a month away from his own, and I jumped back into my 1986 Volvo and I repeated the voyage to my promised land.  The fully tattoo'd piecer was in her late twenties and attractive in a way that scared the hell out of 18-year-old me.  She was confident and had half her head shaved and if we had dated I'd have be naively worried that she was into BDSM or something kinkier, and that I'd end up hanging naked from my big toes with a plush toy ball-gag stuffed in my mouth.  I should be so lucky.  All this is to say she seemed much cooler and more fun than I was at that time.

As a point of fact my piercer was kind, informative, and explained the importance of sterilization.  She was a pro and I was the amateur, and I mean that broadly. After about 5 minutes in a dentist's chair she clamped my tongue with special forceps, and then slid the long silver needle through me like a olympian off the high dive.  The clamp hurt worse than the piercing itself.  The post-pierce lisp and constant Listerine swishes were way worse than the clamps.  Nobody likes upkeep.

I called my parents to let them know it was done. I heard my Mom call from the background, "Did he really do it?!?!?"

Artist rendering: Accurate minus the smile 
My Dad replied, "Well, he either did it or he had a seizure, cause he's not sounding to good."

Despite the swelling, I never questioned my decision.  Much like the tattoos that came long after, long after the bar was in and settled, the piercing felt like it had been a part of me forever, just waiting to be revealed.  And while its outside interpretation has changed as a function of me aging from 18 to 36 as well as living in Japan and the Middle East, its internal significance has remained the same. As I strive to inhabit life as my genuine self, this tongue ring was a tangible reminder that my choices, my conscience, and my morals are what form the cobblestones of that path.

The barbell is a visual reminder that while it may not be considered normal, it is me. And much like the metal it is composed of, that fact cannot rust or corrode.  Or perhaps, it is a reminder not to let my advantage of being unique be corroded by the weathering winds of conformity and groupthink.

My piercing was a one-way ticket to internal freedom, and I never considered the possibility that I'd take it out.

On August 16th 2015, I took out my tongue ring.  Forever.  That is almost 19 years with a stainless-steel reminder that I can mold my life into the future I envision. 

For the next few months the days I've lived with my tongue ring will continue to outnumber the days I've lived without it.  And then one day in the future, a day I refuse to attempt to pinpoint but somehow know is emotionally connected to the whole (sic) in my tongue growing in, I will return to the tongue-ringless majority.

To be entirely honest, the loss of this inconsequential 10-gauge barbell from the inside of my mouth feels enormous.  The problem with representational objects is that we end up packing powder-kegs full of metaphoric meaning into an object, which is then subject to the same chaos of life that previously formed the Grand Canyon – just a random example. 

When the dental hygienist, who enjoyed applying pressure onto the receding gum line inside my lower front teeth wayyyyyy too much, tells me my tongue ring will be to blame when my front teeth fall out, I believe her.  When she Captain Hooks the tissue surrounding my future channels of oral atrophy, I both believe her and wish to help her empathize with my situation by way of blunt force trauma.

I'm making the mature decision about one of my all time favorite immature decisions, and it stings like I'm mourning a friend. I'm wrestling with the passing of my identity as a "pierced person."  It's not that I don't intellectually understand what's going on, it's that I understand it completely.  The problem is that 99 times out of 100 I am compelled to resist the conforming impulse as if it were a battle for my soul. As if any misstep, like neckties or tenure portfolios, could suffocate my inner spark.  What if the removal of my tongue ring re-calcifies my adolescent eggshell, trapping me once again inside the restrictive corset of type-A etiquette?

I fold and re-fold my tongue inside my mouth.  This is an action I have been logistically prevented from performing for close to two decades.  In every iteration, the tip of my tongue runs across the crater where my stud used to sit on its pink cushion.  With every fold comes a moment of recognition that something is missing.  And as my flesh fills that crater, I button up the front of my crisp white dress shirt.  Flipping on my glasses, I hide the bold red "S" emblazoned across my chest for one last time.

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