Monday, March 2, 2015

#160: "Pierced" by William O'Sullivan

~This essay was previously published in the North American Review (2003) and was cited as a notable essay in The Best American Essays 2004.

            In Germany in 1981, miniature studs and thin gold hoops sparkled on young men’s ears like the white lights decorating the Christkindlmarkt in December. These same men wore gauzy Indian-print scarves wrapped loosely around their necks and clogs on their feet—a distinctly European, somewhat hippyish look that I didn’t have the nerve to try. The androgyny of these fashions—folds of flower against bristled neck, callused skin exposed through open heel—bypassed language but sank deep into the ground of my body. It was the pierced ear I was most fascinated by: unarticulated symbol, small glitter against flesh, subtle enough to be mistaken for a bead of sweat.
            A year in a foreign country, removed from the expectations of family and the reactions of friends, might have been the perfect time to make such a change in appearance—undoubtedly more remarkable in 1981 than today, but still relatively minor. Other American college students I knew did it: the artists, the pot smokers, the ones who listened to Modern English and the Clash, not Michael Jackson and Kim Carnes. I fell somewhere in between, hanging out with cheerleaders one night, New Wave weedheads the next.
            No one in my family had pierced ears at the time. As I imagined it, the unspoken rule among my mother and sisters had something to do with the pain, the body alteration, neither of which was desirable. (It never occurred to me that no rule prevailed, simply personal taste.) Even as I dreamed of having an earring—a hoop, always a hoop, I knew that right away—I understood I wouldn’t do it. It was, when you got right down to it, barbaric to punch a hole in the skin, to deliberately cause yourself pain.
            Then, a day or a month or a year later, a man would walk by—shirt open to the sternum and tucked loosely into jeans, sleeves rolled to the elbow to reveal forearms muscled like braided bread, a sliver of gold haloing his lobe.

            One afternoon at the office lunch table, my first job out of college, the conversation turned to a client who’d been in that morning. He was in his thirties, casually dressed, irreverent, chatty, highly caffeinated. This was noticeable in a workplace of Brooks Brothers, Talbots, and Laura Ashley. He also wore a gold hoop on his left ear.
            “You know what my kids tell me,” a coworker—the mother of teenagers—chirped in apparent relief. “Left is right, and right is wrong!”
            I detested this woman for reasons that were only reinforced by those words. Hearing the convention collapsed to an aphorism— “spring forward, fall back,” “i before e, except after c” —made me resentful, but also cautious: If I ever did submit to a piercing gun, I knew it would be the left ear.
            It’s my impression that in the early and mid-’80s a pierced right ear was still rare even among gay men. But I can’t say for sure because in those days I traveled one significant area of my life with blinders on.
            After a close friend from college moved to Washington for a year, he and I met on occasion for a movie or dinner after work. One night shortly after he arrived, as we walked through Dupont Circle, I explained to him—one straight guy to another—that this was D.C.’s gay neighborhood. I might as well have been pointing out a bird sanctuary I’d read about in a guidebook, for all its relevance to my life. I’d never set foot in a gay bar or bookstore, or had any friends I knew to be gay. He nodded along as we made our way across the circle.
            At his funeral in 1997, I found out he’d been going to gay bars in D.C. when I was giving him my tour, and it was also that year that he was infected with HIV.
            Sometimes memories seem to consist of nothing but the silence between sentences, the minute flicker of almost-understanding, the things we knew about ourselves but didn’t tell.
            One of my sisters, five years older than I, finally had her ears pierced in the ’80s. For a few years, before she had children and stopped wearing earrings that babies could grab at, I bought her dangling red feathers, hanging painted beads, sterling droplets suspended mid-fall.

            When I was in my 20s, I never would have dreamed of making a homophobic comment about anyone. I objected to bigotry against gays. I had liberal friends and considered myself open-minded. I didn’t think antigay sentiments applied to me because I told myself I was straight. Like those who view certain things—say, psychotherapy, antidepressants, or bungee-jumping—as unobjectionable, even useful, undertakings for anyone other than themselves, I had no problem with anyone in the world being gay—except me.
            In 1985 I saw the movie My Beautiful Laundrette with a straight friend I’d gone to high school with, an aspiring filmmaker. Afterward, we praised the acting, the screenplay, the humor. We discussed the tensions between whites and Pakistanis in London as depicted on-screen; I listened as he explained why the director chose certain camera angles and lighting. As we talked, though, I was still holding onto the silent gasp that had swelled through me when Johnny surprised his friend Omar on the street as they walked home at night, giving him a deep, open-mouthed kiss.
            Two men kissing—I’d seen it only once, a year or so before, more briefly and aggressively depicted in the Dutch thriller The Fourth Man, when my reaction had been similar, but sparked more by shock than awe. In My Beautiful Laundrette, as I watched Johnny and Omar kissing and, later, making love in the laundromat on the eve of its opening, I memorized forever the movement of one man’s body over another’s, silently entering the frame where the other lay waiting.
            Some images we hold in our skin, our sinew, our pulse, keeping them from the mind and its temptation to translate into words. It’s a way of preserving their visceral meaning, but it can also be protection, a warding-off of complicated light.

            A man in a magazine had earrings that looked like staples in both of his ears. I was 25 and mesmerized.
            In reality, they were studs whose heads were metal hyphens embedded in the soft pink of his earlobes, but I thought for a minute he’d had his ears stapled with a dangerous and painful instrument. I’d never seen a man with both ears pierced. If only the most out-of-the-closet gay men had their right ears pierced, I thought, what did this mean? If left was “right” and right was “wrong,” left and right together was the getaway after the crime, the driver careening through back streets with both hands off the wheel.
            His was one of many bodies behind a veil. Like the images on a movie screen, they populated a world beyond reach, but just beyond. They weren’t only images, either; more and more, they passed through my life: a down-the-hall neighbor with a pink triangle and “Silence = Death” on his lapel; men who’d smile at me as I rang up their purchases in the store where I worked (what did they see in my halting gaze?); others I’d be introduced to at parties, to whom I’d parcel out cordiality in as piecemeal a way as my eyes took them in: scuffed cowboy boots, crisp white T-shirt, warm dark beard.
            One night, out with four women friends, I tagged along to a birthday party in a bar for a man they all knew. I’d met him briefly once and knew little about him except that he was gay. In fact, his right ear was pierced: the danger zone. He was also, to me, effeminate, with a blond Dutchboy and a soft, thin frame that reminded me too much of my own.
            The five of us entered through the downstairs restaurant, where middle-aged men in couples and foursomes glanced up half-curiously from their dinners. Upstairs in the bar, the crowd was younger, more boisterous. My friends reintroduced me to the birthday boy, who had a drag to his speech that I thought was affected, like a shuffling gait on a teenager who knows better. They chatted with him for fifteen, twenty protracted minutes while I loitered on the outskirts, feeling neither a part of what they shared nor comfortable meeting the eyes of the men in the room, even neutrally.
            In the noisy white-blue darkness, I imagined holding a condensation-sopped bottle of beer, the label rubbed to warm pulp by my fingers. Ordering one would have provided the barest of occupations while I waited, but it was also a commitment, however brief, to the place I found myself, and more of one than I was willing to make.

            If My Beautiful Laundrette was a glimpse through the keyhole, Longtime Companion was the kick out of the closet. I went to it alone on a summer afternoon—despondent yet sure that a movie about gay men dying of AIDS was, for some reason, just what I needed to see. I left the theater barely able to breathe, the aura of a seizure about me as I knew what I had to do next.
            The movie wasn’t about death but about love, and I was a coward not to take part. I wanted to take part.
            I was ready to unite feeling with language, to surrender to myself at last, but I still wasn’t ready to have an ear pierced. I was, however, more attracted to the idea than ever. The topic came up at some point with most of the men I dated over the next few years. One said he’d never been interested in having it done himself; another thought it looked dumb to have only one ear pierced. Still another announced that it would make him look “too gay,” a comment that irritated me even as I harbored the same fear about myself. Of course, there were plenty of masculine men, straight and gay, who proved that an earring in and of itself didn’t make you look gay. Rather, for some of us, an earring would serve as confirmation of what the world already suspected: not that we were gay—after all, we were out, weren’t we? —but that we were queers.
            This was the early ’90s, when “queer” was taking hold among many gays and lesbians as the self-identifier of choice: claiming the language of the oppressor to defuse its power to hurt. I tried not to be bothered by the word. I understood its political meaning, but I couldn’t bring myself to use it. Contemplating such a thing felt like a newlywed being asked to call his mother-in-law by her first name or, even worse, “Mom.” When, already past 30, I still stored the idea of getting my ear pierced in the fantasy category, how could I be expected to call myself or any other gay person queer without sickening? (In sixth grade, Frank Kerns—who had a habit of deliberately dropping things and making me pick them up—asked, “Are you queer?” Terrified of what would happen if I gave in to either “no” or “yes,” I answered, bookishly, “That’s a matter of opinion.”)
            But acclimating to the “queer” label eventually receded to relative unimportance as the idea of ear-piercing moved from the realm of things I dreamed of doing, but knew I never would, to that of the inevitable that I had no idea how to make real.
            It was early 1994, and I was 32. In the previous year, my first long-term partner and I had ended a year of obligatory friendship following a year of failed romance; I’d fallen hard for a guy I met through a personal ad (mine) and then lost him to AA, all in five weeks; and I’d gone out with another man who’d answered the same ad and turned out to be more infatuated with me than I was with him. (I have him to thank, however, for my love of country music. No fan himself, he picked a gay country-western bar for our first date because he thought it was easy to talk in. As we chatted, I couldn’t keep my eyes off the men on the dance floor, their thumb-in-pocket line-dancing a chorus of seductive yet unself-conscious swagger.)
            By winter I was alone. I’d gained some confidence in dating but was also restless in a way I had trouble defining. I was embarrassed to admit how much of this feeling revolved around the prospect of getting my ear pierced. I wished I’d gotten the damn thing out of my system ten years before.
            Gotten it out of my system. Didn’t that have a familiar ring to it? The old chestnut of a rationalization for the closeted man looking at, longing for, finally touching another male, then hating himself (and the other guy) in the morning. Why couldn’t I admit, now that I was out, that an earring was just something nice, attractive, sexy—or simply stylish—that I wanted to do for myself? And then do it?
            I remember wandering the streets of Georgetown on a bitter-cold night after work, there on a mundane errand but at the same time intently scanning pricey jewelry-store windows for some imagined—and ridiculously incongruous—neon sign: “Ears Pierced Here!” I found none, there or anywhere else I looked in the city. Suddenly, my mind a clot of apprehension and anticipated regret, I had absolutely no idea where anyone went to have an ear pierced.
            I confided my wish and my dilemma to a friend—unpierced himself—who rolled his eyes and laughed: “Jesus—go to the mall!”
            I knew that.
            One evening a couple of obsessively ruminative weeks later, as I clomped on a Stairclimber at the Y, I decided, all in a single instant, that after my workout I’d drive to the mall a few miles away and get my ear pierced.
            It was as simple and ordinary as that.
            An hour later, with the inexplicably calm determination of one who’s been slack with what-ifs for too long, I walked up to one of those shops that specialize in velveteen hair scrunchies and faux-gold accessories and said to the young woman standing near the entrance, “I’d like to get my ear pierced.”
            “Sure,” she said, leading me to a stool in the corner and pulling out a tray of studs. “Which one?”
            “The right,” I said, not even stopping to wonder.

            What does a little girl feel like walking out of the pediatrician’s office with her mother, her earlobes smarting from the piercing gun? Or a thirteen-year-old with birthstones newly sparkling beneath her hair? A teenage boy whose girlfriend has gone with him to the mall to complement his backward baseball cap and letter jacket with a new stud on his ear? A 21-year-old gay man walking out of the same place—what does he feel besides a tender throb on his earlobe to compete with the memory of last night’s dance beat?
            All I know is what I felt that night as I walked through the mall to my car: the same sensation that follows dropping a long-contemplated letter of explanation or rage or apology into the mailbox, making the first razor stroke on the beard, or lighting a match to the youthful poems that, for better or worse, you never want to see again.
            Stopped at traffic lights that night, I craned my neck toward the rear-view mirror. At home, I left the bathroom light on all that first evening until I went to bed, so often did I wander in there to look at myself reflected in the medicine-cabinet door. Over the following weeks—at my desk, on the subway, in front of the TV—I’d periodically finger the tiny gold knob on my ear, or the post in back, with the tactile fascination that greets a newly toned muscle on one’s body or a just-discovered spot on a lover’s flesh. I was both self-involved and outside myself, with the two states completely in the realm of the physical. This puncture was a permanent reminder of the physical.
            I didn’t really care for the gold stud—it seemed almost garish compared to my longed-for thin silver hoop—but like anyone else I had to endure it for four weeks before I could switch. At my office, I feared that my coworkers would stop in their tracks and ask me why I’d done it. In fact, several people did comment on it, but in a complimentary, casual way, as they might have if I’d shown up with a new haircut. Several others, including my boss, said nothing. Surely, I thought, this latter group either thinks I’m ridiculous—an overgrown teen—or else doesn’t think enough of me in the first place to notice when I look different from one day to the next. The fact that those who were silent included a friend of mine, Nora, particularly bugged me.
            Days later, another colleague said to her, in my presence, “Did you notice Bill’s pierced ear?”
            Scrutinizing my ear for the first time, Nora said, “Yeah, I noticed. What—is it new?” She looked at me. “Didn’t you ever wear an earring before?”
            I shook my head.
            “I mean, I saw it,” she said. “But I just thought, ‘Oh, Bill’s wearing his earring today.’ I guess I’ve always considered you a pierced-ear kind of guy.”

            I’ll say it: There’s little I’m prouder of in my life than getting my ear pierced. It’s not so much the act itself that I’m proud of as it is the choice I made to get the right ear pierced. And it’s not even so much that as the fact that, when it came time to make it, it was really no choice at all.
            Regardless of the reliability of the left-equals-straight/right-equals-gay maxim—and the theory does, shall we say, have its holes—I knew that the only reason to choose my left that night in the mall would be so that those people who took stock in such symbols wouldn’t think I was gay. And I was gay.
            There was my decision.
            Not that I was immune from fear or self-consciousness from that point on. Less than a week later, my resolve backpedaled the night my parents were to see the new me, and against all instructions I removed my stud before going over to their house. What difference would a few measly hours make, I asked myself, for the greater good of putting off the inevitable?
            That night when I got back from their house (who knows if they noticed the mysterious puncture wound on my ear), I spent 45 minutes trying, with increasingly shaking fingers, to reposition the post in the all-but-closed-up hole, drawing blood and no doubt shredding precious internal tissue. I finally succeeded, but I felt like a guilty kid trying to piece together a smashed Limoges plate with rubber cement.
            When my parents did see my earring a week or so later, the reaction was closer to befuddlement than dismay, and then the conversation moved on. What made me think this would be as big a deal as coming out to them had been? They’d accepted the truth then—at least after it faded, for all of us, from showstopper into background music. A little tasteful jewelry on their son they could handle.
            In fact, when I got my other ear pierced a year and a half later, they made no comment whatsoever. I should have expected as much, because the piercing itself happened as easily and surely as the first one had. Same moment of inevitability on the Stairclimber one evening, same route to the same mall (though, for the sake of variety, I chose a different scrunchies-and-accessories shop).
            At the time, I was dating a straitlaced but handsome man from Nebraska who spoke with a near-British accent of the type you hear in American movie actors of the black-and-white era—Bette Davis or Myrna Loy. He called umbrellas “brollies” and cookies “biscuits” and had a framed photo of Margaret Thatcher on his dresser, which I mistook as camp the first night I was over.
            “That’s great,” I chuckled.
            “I revere Maggie Thatcher,” he replied, dead serious.
            Over the weeks, it became clear to me our politics and interests—not to mention our national allegiances—were at odds, though he didn’t seem bothered. I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but I think I hoped that a passive-aggressive side benefit of the second piercing might be to strike terror in his corn-fed Tory heart so he’d want to end the relationship.
            The two earrings didn’t make him blink any more than they did my parents, so I had to find a more mundane way to break his heart: telling him the truth.

            I can’t recall exactly when I stopped wearing one of the two earrings, but I do know which one it was: the right.
            The double-earring look had gone mainstream—i.e., straight. Not only that, but it had gone young. In my mid-30s, I was finding myself in the sartorial company of suburban sixteen-year-old boys, many of whom would probably have blanched—if not more—at the thought that their trendy look had been pioneered by gay men.
            Ironically, one reason I switched back to a single earring was that by then it actually seemed like a gayer style than two did, and far less ubiquitous. So why was it the right hoop, not the left, that I stored away in its little case in the medicine cabinet? Perhaps I lost interest in the statement I imagined I was making. Or maybe a reverse psychology was at play: Left is “right,” so for that reason I’m going to wear it on the left; while doing so used to mean caving in to conformity, now (little do they know!) left is wrong. Left is queer!
            Too bad my one-man protest movement never made it past my brain.
            The truth is, I didn’t put much thought into it. And that in itself, at this stage of my life, feels like progress.
            Sometime in the last year or so, I took the single earring off, too, for no better reason than I was tired of it—much like my ever-changing facial hair. And, I’ll admit it, it seemed to me that earrings on guys had just kind of gone out of style.
            One of these days I’ll give it a try again. Maybe it will go in, maybe not. I won’t force it.

            I live with someone now. We’ve been together for a few years, and our life has settled into a comfortable inevitability: dinner in front of the TV, trips to the vet, Thanksgiving with family, morning frenzy and blessed nighttime rest.
            On his right earlobe are two healed-over holes where he once wore a pair of silver hoops before we met. To my touch, they feel like half-grains of hard rice buried in a warm pillow of flesh. Sometimes after dark we’ve told each other stories of our pierced ears. His stories are different from mine, but even so we have something to share: scars, symbols, memories.
            In Germany all those years ago, as I walked through the university looking at the men, at the star-like pinpoints of glitter against flesh, somewhere deep in my body a soft voice wondered how it could be I’d traveled so far to get to that country, with so far left to go.

            I wrote this during a month off between jobs in 1999 (a full three years before it was accepted and four years before publication). Having every day free to write for an extended period was a luxury I’d never experienced before and that I’ve since enjoyed only at occasional writing retreats. Not having to squeeze an idea into snatches of time allowed me to settle into a subject that had been on my mind for years and explore its many angles and connections with no expectations, just patience. Perhaps not incidentally, it’s the longest essay I’ve ever written.
            Looking at it just recently for the first time in years, I was actually shocked to read that when I stopped wearing two earrings, it was the right one I took out. I had no recollection of that detail whatsoever—in life or writing. The reason I was so surprised is that when the relationship described at the end of the essay broke up (yeah, sorry), one of the first things I did was get an ear pierced again. It was 2003 (strangely enough, the same year this was published), I was 41 and single, and I made a conscious choice to have the right ear—the “gay” ear—pierced, just like the very first time.
            I wore that earring till early this year (2014) when I was in a bike accident and it was taken out in the emergency room and never returned. Both holes have closed up once more, but if I can ever find another perfect hoop like it—the thinnest of thin silver, barely glancing my earlobe—I’ll probably do it all over again.



William O’Sullivan’s essays have been published in the Washington Post, the New York Times, Newsday, Washingtonian, Common Boundary, and Christopher Street, among others. His work has been cited three times among the notable essays of the year in Best American Essays. Senior managing editor of Washingtonian magazine from 9 to 5, he also teaches the personal essay at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland. He lives in Washington, D.C.

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