The Penis Problem
“I’ve got a penis problem.”
The words alone didn’t rouse me quickly enough. Someone grabbed my right arm, shook me hard, jerking me out of a deep sleep. The king of the jungle, his loin cloth tented with desire for my forty-eight-year-old body, vanished. Instead, in the vague darkness of my bedroom, I saw the coffee-colored face of my son, Kaleb. The child of my heart, if not my womb. By the calendar, he was sixteen; some days he’d be going on thirty, others he regressed to two.
“Mo-o-om, I have a penis problem.”
The clock blinked lazy amber dots I couldn’t quite read. I groped for my glasses on the nightstand, perched them on my nose, glanced again at the alarm. One A.M. There was no going back to sleep. Kaleb, thanks to his ADHD, demanded immediate resolution of any issue currently obsessing him.
He turned on the light, blinding me. “You’re a doctor. Look at it.”
Now semi-alert, I tugged my nightgown down to a more modest level and sat on the edge of the bed. “What exactly’s going on?”
“It’s too big.”
My jaw dropped. In all my years in medicine, not a single male patient had ever uttered those words. Images of what a sixteen-year-old might be doing with his penis at one A.M. on a school night flashed through my brain. Three guesses, and they all started with M. “Are you playing with yourself too roughly?”
He threw the old wives’ tales about “self-abuse” back at me. “I can still see, Mom, and hair hasn’t grown on my knuckles—yet.” He rolled his eyes and grinned his smart-ass grin.
The year before, I’d been concerned when I found him playing video games in the guise of a female. As I studied him watching the tits and asses of his feminine avatar, I understood where his true focus lay. I knew he wasn’t gay but wanted to leave the door of my acceptance of his choices wide open. “Are you having sex with anyone? Girls? Boys?”
“Mom, you’re talking to me. I had a girlfriend for one whole week in seventh grade. Nothing since.” He rolled his eyes again.
Relief splashed over me. He was too young, I thought, as prepared as I could make him, but still too young. We’d had the birds and bees talk, the banana and condom demonstration, and to reinforce the benefits of postponing sexual activity, I left dermatology textbooks prominently displayed, open to gross and disgusting pictures of penile lesions and secondary syphilis.
My mom-role didn’t appear to be what Kaleb was seeking, so I assumed my doctor-role. “Is it priapism? An erection that’s gone on for too long?”
“No, Mom. I swear it’s grown overnight. It’s a lot bigger around than it used to be. Look at it.”
Grateful he could talk to me about these issues, I agreed.
He turned his back to me. His jammy bottoms slithered uncertainly up and down his brown buttocks a few times before he pulled them down completely and rotated so I could examine him. This particular body part had been hidden from me since he turned thirteen. Before junior high, he was too shy for anyone but Mom to look down there. The minute he hit seventh grade, his penis became off limits to maternal inspection.
I ran through the basic exam of external male genitalia: no smegma, discharge, or odor. No redness, warmth, or tenderness. No genital warts, herpes, or yeast. “Cough.” He did. No hernias or other serious issues.
Kaleb possessed a more-than-adequate penis, brown, uncircumcised, on the high end of normal in size. I couldn’t find a darn thing wrong. His penis was practically perfect. Still, I worried that I’d missed something, struggling with the misgivings that accompany a doctor trying to treat a family member objectively. “It looks fine to me.”
“You don’t know anything, Mom.”
I sighed. “Son, I’ve been a doctor twenty-five years. I’ve seen a penis or two.” I did some quick mental math. “Say, fifteen or twenty thousand of them.”
He had the balls to snicker. “Even more than a hooker, huh?”
I groaned. There was no winning with this kid. “Go to bed. If it’s still bothering you in the morning, I’ll check it again in a better light.”
The next morning over breakfast, Kaleb’s “penis problem” raised its head again. He phrased things somewhat differently this time. “Do men with big feet really have big penises?” He wears a size fifteen shoe.
A few days later, “Do black men really have bigger penises than white guys?”
So the diameter or length of his penis was not the actual problem, rather “Am I OK?” manifested itself as “Is my penis OK? Is it OK that I’m black?”
“Human bodies tend to be proportionate, but not always so.” We talked about averages and the few people who fall outside two standard deviations from the norm. “Trust me. You are normal, Kaleb.”
He paused a minute then did one of those ADHD subject changes that left my head spinning. “Do you think zombies have penises?”
“The existence of zombie penises, like zombies themselves, is possible, but not probable.”
“It’s a yes or no question, Mom.” He put his hands on either side of my face, moving my head in the appropriate directions as if I were a bobble-headed doll. “Just answer ‘yes’ or ‘no.’”
“I can’t. Not everything in life is yes or no. There are possibles, probables, impossibles, and improbables. Sometimes there is no definitive answer.”
“Mom!” He rolled his eyes.
We’d had similar discussions regarding the existence of UFO’s and aliens, the probability of intergalactic and time travel, and whether zombies were sentient. Since I was a doctor, could I cure a zombie? Yes or no? Was I morally capable of curing a zombie? Yes or no? (Surely Hippocrates didn’t have these conversations with his son before writing his famous oath. Would he now amend it to cover the living dead? Vampires? Robots? Clones? Aliens?) A teenager, Kaleb wanted everything to be black and white. Sometimes I thought the best life-training for a child would be preparation for all the grays out in the real world.
Over the next week, the penis problem came and went out of focus, sometimes examined under high power on his mental microscope; other times I swear his microscope wasn’t even plugged in. I offered to take him to his pediatrician. Kaleb chose him because of his race. Fortunately, my black male colleague understood why. When I tried to make an appointment with a urologist for a second opinion, Kaleb wasn’t sure he needed to go.
At his insistence, I examined him one more time. He wanted solid facts. Using the Masters and Johnson’s technique, I showed him how to measure his penis three times for accuracy. He chose the mean, rather than the median or mode, because it gave him a larger result by four millimeters. Then we googled penis sizes. The concrete information off the internet reassured him more than Dr. Mom.
“Hey, I’m bigger than average.”
“Four millimeters isn’t statistically significant, dear.” But I sent a mental prayer of thanks to Dr. Alfred C. Kinsey for his sex research. “But, yes, you fall within normal range.”
After my night shift in the ER, I headed to bed. I lay there tossing and turning in the early morning light, finally jerking the covers over my head. Though cocooned in semi-darkness surrounded by the clean smells of fabric softener and lavender soap, sleep eluded me. My shift had been brutal, but more than the usual hospital-related tension kept me awake. I replayed Kaleb’s his adolescent growing pains. I’m not a guy. Obviously. How much did a teenage boy really want—or need—to know. ? Did my answers reassure Kaleb? Confuse him? Did I give him too much information? Too little? Was I too open? Too uptight?
Kaleb’s father, should have been here, but he had abandoned wife and child without a backwards glance. When we adopted Kaleb, I never dreamed I’d raise our son alone. We should have shared the load of parenting. I thought all the emotional upheaval from our divorce had settled like sediment into the waters of my life. Usually, only an occasional bit of pond scum floated by to remind me of my failed marriage. But that night I dredged everything to the surface, all the fear, guilt, heartbreak…and profound loneliness.
Jack and I met in statistics class our junior year. We played footsie under the table while solving for chi-square and married right after graduation from college. While I endured medical school, he finished his masters and doctorate, vanishing for months at a time on archeology digs around the world. We survived getting my M.D. and his Ph.D. with grace, supporting and caring for each other, so intertwined we couldn’t tell who was the trellis and who was the rose. The long absences made our hearts and bodies grow fonder, and sex after an enforced abstinence was honeymoon sweet.
My residency began two weeks after he got his doctorate. He partied that summer before starting as assistant professor at the local university, while I slaved twelve twelve-hour days straight. On my rare weekend off, exhausted, I slept. We tried getting pregnant, but during some ovulations I was too busy—or too tired—for sex. Clearly, the responsibility for our infertility lay at my feet.
When I finished my training, Jack was on a dig at the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania. I volunteered in a missionary-run clinic in nearby Karatu so we’d at least enjoy conjugal visits. While surrounded by blacks in Africa, adopting a foreign baby seemed natural. We could make a difference in one life, lift one child from poverty. After nine years of childlessness, we adopted Kaleb.
Jack moved up the ranks of the local university, published in the proper journals at all the right times, became a full professor. Once a week I worked a graveyard shift in the Emergency Room that coincided with Jack’s evening class. Helena, one of his students, babysat. It seemed like an ideal solution.
He remained handsome though his blonde curls dulled. When he colored his silvered locks, I assumed mere vanity. I was pleased when he listened to my preaching about the virtues of a healthy lifestyle and took up jogging, lifting weights, and a balanced diet. He dropped the fifteen pounds he’d gained over our marriage and was sexier than ever. I couldn’t keep my hands off him.
Two communicable diseases converged to kill my perfect life.
When my temperature hit 103 and I nearly passed out in the ER, I knew I’d succumbed to influenza. My fellow physicians voted to send me home before I got them sick.
At two A.M., I pulled into the driveway. Helena’s car remained parked in the cul-de-sac. My heart raced, either from fever or a suspicion that something was amiss. I tiptoed into the family room to find the babysitter earning extra credit by allowing Jack to do an archeological excavation of her vagina. Her eager moans masked the click of my cell phone as I captured them in flagrante delicto.
During the ensuing confrontation, I coughed like Camille on her deathbed and prayed Helena hadn’t had a flu shot. She deserved some consequence for screwing my husband on my leather couch. Fearful of waking Kaleb, I kept my voice low as I banished Jack and Helena from the house, throwing their clothing on the sidewalk after them. I flipped on the porch light so any neighbors who happened to be awake could watch Jack hopping one-legged through the dew-damp grass, struggling to get his pants on.
He weaseled himself back into our home—if not my good graces—with vows of eternal fidelity. Six months later, he whined, “I think I’m reacting to that Mexican food you made day before yesterday.” He showed me his hands. The implication that I’d poisoned him dripped from his voice like Tabasco sauce into the open wound of our marriage.
“Two things cause palmar rashes”—I ran my fingers over the bronze speckles on his palms—“syphilis and Rocky Mountain spotted fever, an tick-borne illness. The only thing that’s sucked on you recently is that blonde undergrad.”
A blood test confirmed secondary syphilis. I was livid. The thought of Jack’s syphilitic fingers running over my body inspired sheer horror. Even more frightening was the realization he cared so little for me that he had gambled with my life. Having unprotected sex with multiple young women, he must have known he could contract an STD, yet he left me ignorant of my danger while, like any long-married couple, we continued unprotected sex.
When Jack asked for a divorce to marry the girl who gave him syphilis, I was stunned.
“I have to marry her. She’s pregnant. You know I’ve always wanted kids.”
“We have Kaleb.”
“He’s not my flesh and blood.”
“You mean he’s not perfect like your real child would have been.”
Jack couldn’t handle Kaleb’s ADHD. He saw only the lack of focus, not the creative flights that connected dots ideas in unique ways. He never reveled in the joy of a son who sight-read “Tyrannosaurus rex” at age three or was amazed that his four-year-old child used a table of contents. Didn’t notice the sad eyes of young adolescent who felt unloved because he was doubly defective: born with black skin and ADHD.
Soon, Kaleb himself figured out that he inconvenienced his father by being the wrong color, the wrong age, and too hard to explain. Jack’s childlike white-bread bride couldn’t abide pumpernickel. Kaleb picked up on Helena’s discomfort, becoming sullen and uncooperative on his visits, uneasy in the uber-blondness of Jack’s new family. By the time the third little white-flour bun popped out of Helena’s oven, Kaleb’s alternate weekend visitations were too much for the young mother with three kids under five. At first, Jack made excuses for the skipped visitations: he was away on a dig, the little ones were ill, or caring for an extra child exhausted his poor little wife. After he accepted a teaching position two thousand miles away, Helena only had dark bread in the house on alternate Christmases and a month in the summer. Eventually, Kaleb refused to visit or even speak with Jack on the phone. I was proud my son had asserted himself and had shown such good taste.
Kaleb’s growing sexuality reinforced vague weltschmerz I’d had for months: I wasn’t dead-dead, but not alive-alive either. Like Kaleb’s zombies, I was the living-dead. Years of the daily drudge stretched before me. I enjoyed the company of my son, especially now that he was capable of real conversation, but he wouldn’t be here forever. My life lacked an adult male. After divorcing Jack, I’d thought I’d find someone else. No luck. As I’ve aged, the odds have dwindled. Why would a man settle for someone with hot flashes if he could get someone, like Helena, who was just hot?
At this point I had to admit I had a penis problem—or rather a paucity thereof. I reviewed the men I dated post-Jack. Not a single one held me in thrall the way my ex had. Using a “sex + romance + love = nirvana” equation, I categorized those men then plotted them like mathematical loci into quadrants on an x-y axis graph, seeking a rational explanation for my nonexistent love life.
First, the (-x, -y) quadrant: the total losers, the obvious weirdos and losers, the bizarre metrosexuals, the overly-attached mama’s boys, and those in whom some deeply buried defect existed, and natural selection kept them from mating and propagating.
The (-x, y) group, like Jack, used child-brides in lieu of fountains of perpetual youth.
As proof of their virility, the (x, -y) batch maintained zenanas rivaling those of oriental potentates.
Finally, the (x, y) guys: the serial monogamists who served consecutive terms with a string of women. After siring another spate of kids, bored, they dumped that wife, then repeated the process like the directions on shampoo bottles: lather, rinse, repeat. These men didn’t come to marriage as tabulae rasae. They bore the cumulative familial angst of parents, ex-wives, ex-in-laws, children, stepchildren, sometimes grandchildren and step-grandchildren, alimony, and child support.
Anyone worth loving would necessarily be plotted on the z-axis in some alternate dimension only Einstein could visualize.
More than the joy of sex, I missed the joy of touch: dodging the toothbrush to plant a good morning kiss, the rubbing of feet after a hard day, the brush of butts passing in the kitchen, the caress on the back of the neck with the delivery of a glass of wine, the dozy talk while drifting to sleep in another’s arms.
I realized how desperate I’d become when I found two patients attractive. The first, a seventy-year-old man preoccupied with a urinary problem, came in for a consult. He’d refused prostate surgery because his friend became impotent after the operation. More recently, his beloved wife had died after fifty years of marriage.
“I know it’s not an STD, Doc. I’ve never slept with anyone but my Sophie.” Though he continued his celibacy, he added, “I’m just not ready to give sex up yet, Doc.”
He was so cute I wanted to take him home. What was there not to like? A lonely, sweet man capable of both long long-term commitment and sexual intercourse.
The second, an ex-NFL player, was big, tall, still sexy at fifty-something. We talked forever in the exam room, learning the Readers Digest Condensed Book versions of each others’ lives. Like me, he had baggage: two ex-wives and a couple of kids, nothing recent. All those old dragons had burnt out. I considered an affair. His hepatitis B deterred me more than his living out of town or the pesky doctor-patient relationship thing. The chemistry was definitely there, though; I was reassured I could still get those urges.
After my layest series of failed dates, I gave up.
In response, Kaleb became my social secretary. “Mom, you’re always working. You need to get out more.” He tried to set me up with his newly divorced math teacher and a friend’s father. Finally even he gave up. “Maybe you should try on-line dating.”
“I’m a carbon-based life-form. I don’t do silicon.” Meeting someone over the internet without the nuances of real contact gave me the willies.
Two years later, my baby bird fledged, returning only briefly during migrations. Somewhere in his early teens, Kaleb switched his interest from zombies to veterinary medicine. I was heartbroken when he was accepted at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, nearly two thousand miles away.
Somehow, I never thought I’d fall prey to empty-nest syndrome. I was a successful physician, too busy and too smart for such psychodrama. Kaleb hadn’t been away three weeks before I was going crazy. I filled silent evenings with wasted hours playing Solitaire on the computer. Within weeks, I’d knitted myself silly and read till I was cross-eyed.
A catalog from a local arts and crafts school arrived in the mail. Maybe I needed a hobby? The institute was conveniently located between home and work. Flipping through the pages, I rejected class after class. Drawing, photography, and printmaking (no artistic talent). Glassblowing (having hot flashes while standing before a furnace was so unappealing). Quilting and weaving (too tedious). The feel of garden dirt between my fingers delighted me, so pottery seemed a logical choice. The coolness of clay would supply the tactile stimulation I craved. I signed up quickly—before I chickened out. The class was met immediately before my graveyard shift, so, a paragon of efficiency, I could go from home to school to the hospital.
At the first class, my fellow students didn’t seem promising, a mix of bored suburban housewives and too-young gay men. Miguel, the potter teaching the class, walked in late. About my age, graying hair in a ponytail, he wore a clay-splattered vintage Lennon-Ono Give-Peace-a-Chance T-shirt over his wiry frame. By the end of the first session, the class was wedging clay, preparing it for our next meeting. At ten P.M. sharp, I dashed to work.
At the next session, I grew frustrated trying to center my clay on the wheel. Miguel adjusted my stool, pushing me forward a few inches. His spatulate clay-covered fingers showed me how to rest my forearms on my thighs to stabilize my hands. Where his dirty fingerprints soaked into my jeans, the cool mud generated heat for hours.
I zipped to work while everyone else went for coffee after class.
Eventually, I realized a once-weekly class wasn’t enough to get a handle on this new skill. Other students were already glazing exquisite cups and bowls, and I hadn’t yet made a pot worth pissing in. Knowing I needed more time on the potter’s wheel, I traded Saturday morning gardening for class from nine till noon. When my bowl collapsed for the third time, I smashed the remnants with my fist.
Miguel looked up in alarm then strode over to see what was going on. “Come on, Claire. Just start over. It’s not brain surgery.”
“Compared to this, surgery is easy!”
He pulled a stool behind me and placed his hands over mine, guiding their motion. “You’re trying too hard. Relax.”
I wriggled my neck and shoulders, willing them to loosen.
After a while, he removed his hands from mine, resting his on my thighs. “Steady. Keep going. Gently. When you think it’s done, stop.”
After adding a concave curve to a thinner rim, I lifted my fingers from the clay and allowed the wheel to glide to a stop. I held my breath. We sat in silence.
His rhythmic respirations danced air across my neck. “You can breathe, Claire.”
Cautiously I exhaled. The bowl survived. I looked at Miguel.
He gave me a muddy high-five and nodded his approval. “That ogee curve is an elegant touch.”
The motion of the second hand of the clock behind his head caught my eye. Class finished an hour ago. Everyone else was gone. I’d been so absorbed I hadn’t noticed. I jumped up. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to keep you.”
“It was worth it to get you over your mental block. Coffee? You’re the only one who never comes for coffee after class.”
“I work Thursday nights.”
“It’s Saturday afternoon.”
“I have things to do.”
“Deadhead my rosebushes and…”
He waited expectantly.
“Fill my hummingbird feeders.” God, it sounded lame, even to me.
He shook his head, took my elbow, and led me to the school cafe. “Have lunch with me, and I’ll help you with your chores.”
A few days later, anticipating disaster, I hyperventilated as Miguel opened the kiln and removed my bowl. Hands shaking, I took it from him, admiring its glorious glaze of Cosmic Copper. I couldn’t believe I had created something so beautiful.
Miguel wrapped one arm around my waist. “When form, function, glaze, and color come together so exquisitely, it’s orgasmic.”
During his fall migration at Thanksgiving, Kaleb casually mentioned a girl he’d met in biology class. They sat in adjacent seats in the lecture hall and lab. Along with several other people, they formed a study group that met twice a week.
My gorgeous bowl graced our holiday table, moved only to allow the turkey to preside over dinner.
Over the Christmas holidays, as I served hot cocoa in thick-rimmed mugs with a Blue Nebula raku glaze, Kaleb talked nonstop about this girl. Daijha this. Daijha that. Daijha’s family celebrated Kwanzaa. He was on the phone constantly with her when he wasn’t hitting the malls and movies with his friends. Instead of staying home a full month, he returned to Cornell early. I suspected he couldn’t live another minute without Daijha.
I signed up for a second pottery class on Thursday mornings starting in January. If I became engrossed in my work I could stay late, then have dinner with Miguel before going to the hospital.
On Martin Luther King Day, Kaleb called to tell me he and Daijha’s family had marched in the parade. Her grandmother and mother had served soul food afterwards, part of a neighborhood block party.
“Mom, you were right. I never thought it would be so cool. Today, all us blacks came together to celebrate Reverend King…it was really powerful.” A catch in his throat revealed the depth of his emotions. Growing up, he had no interest in black history, despite my best efforts to instill it in him. I dragged him once to an MLK march. I remembered his wise-ass comment: “Mom, I’m not Afro-American, I’m just African. And an Oreo besides—black on the outside, white on the inside.” After that, I marched alone. This Daijha had shown him what his white mother couldn’t.
His sophomore year, Kaleb brought his girl home for Thanksgiving. He’d cleared it with me first, but I was still nervous about meeting her. How would Daijha feel about her boyfriend’s white mother?
A brown powerhouse, she was tall and slim, with eyes so dark they should have been inscrutable, but instead were warm and twinkly. I was surprised how much I liked her. She sucked up appropriately, asking for tips about surviving pre-med and medical school.
I filled her in on the joys and hazards of being a doctor, the stresses on one’s personal life and family, the higher rate of divorce.
An easy familiarity reverberated between Daijha and Kaleb. They’d spent enough time together to finish each other’s sentences and to anticipate coffee refills. She’d learned to handle Kaleb’s ADHD by touching him to get his attention before asking him to do something. He calmed her down when she got too wound up. She pitched in around the house like she’d lived with us her whole life.
Kaleb planned to spend Christmas/Kwanzaa with Daijha and her family. In pottery class, I created a resplendent Kwanzaa candelabrum glazed in Leaf Green with India ink accenting the crackles. Miguel assured me it was a work of art and made me sign it. I shipped it to my future in-laws, boxed with artisanal beeswax candles, the first time I’d felt confident enough to share my art.
Since Daijha’s parents had the kids for the winter holiday, I got them for spring break. On their prior visit, they pretended to sleep separately. When my light went out, I knew they bed-hopped. Vacuuming beneath Kaleb’s bed, I found the Kama Sutra Jack gave me twenty-five years ago. Obviously, he and Daijha were far beyond typical teenage sex. This visit, I made up the queen bed in the guest room and left his twin unmade. They connected the dots.
Kaleb popped into my study before heading to the movies with Daijha.
“For understanding. For letting us sleep together. It’s even cooler than Highway to Hell.”
My former pinnacle of motherly coolness had been when I delivered five teenaged boys to their homes post-sleepover. They wanted to hear heavy metal on Sirius Radio. We drove down the road in my matronly Volvo playing AC/DC so loud the car shook, singing Highway to Hell at the tops of our lungs. Even for me, it was a glorious moment.
Before he turned to go, I waved the Kama Sutra under his nose, eyebrows raised questioningly.
“Yes, we’re having sex. Yes, we’re being careful. Yes, she’s on birth control. We used condoms for the first year till we both tested negative for STD’s twice.” He rolled his eyes. “We’re not stupid, Mom. We’ve got too many years of school ahead of us to start a family now. I have a job lined up in a vet’s office in Ithaca, so we’re moving in together over the summer.”
Daijha called from the front door. “Kaleb? We still going out?”
“Yeah, babe, be down in a minute.”
Halfway down the hall, he turned back and said with a big grin, “By the way, you being careful?”
I tried to remain expressionless.
“Mom,” he said as though I lacked two brain cells to rub together, “there’s an extra toothbrush in your holder, two towels on the rack, gourmet coffee in the freezer, the yard never looked better. And…” he paused for dramatic effect, “…all the condoms I left in my nightstand have, uh, ‘disappeared.’” He grinned his wise-ass grin.
Heat flashed over my face. I knew my skin matched the chrome-tin pink of my latest teapot.
Kaleb waited expectantly.
“Yes, dear, I’m being careful.”
“So when do I get to meet Miguel?” he called as he ran down the stairs to Daijha.
This story originally appeared in a slightly altered form in Issue #3, January 26, 2014 of Empty Sink Publishing, “dedicated to publishing works from new, emerging, or established writers and artists that encourages the reader or observer to reevaluate the world around them…in work that stretches the mind, defies convention, and offers a new perspective on life.” Please check them out and read the works of other fine contemporary authors.