An Uncontrolled Swelling
My cousin’s nuts started to swell after we returned from a late summer camping trip with my father. We had slept in a tent in the mountains and my cousin, Frankie, had left his underwear outside overnight and I told him not to put them back on. He had no idea what kind of bug could get into his shorts overnight, but like a doofus he had only packed one pair of underwear so he slept in his swimming trunks during the night and then, in the morning, he put on his underpants by the hot air of the camp fire. A pair of underpants, grayish and stained in the heavily used regions between the legs was not something we wanted to see while eating our morning oatmeal. “We don’t want to have to look at your stinky briefs,” my father said, so Frankie put them back on. “They’re making my nuts cold,” he said. We broke down camp and began to hike further into the mountains, around this big lake, and finally, at the end of the day, we were way into the back country. Aside from the trail, the only sign that there were people on the earth were the scratches of contrails in the sky, and of course the three of us.
Frankie started itching at the lake and, by the time we got to the camp, he couldn’t wear his briefs anymore. My father gave him some lotion and that helped a little. He just wore his shorts and Frankie said it didn’t itch anymore. But from his frequent trips behind the bushes, I could tell he was still scratching. At that camp, my dad and I went fishing and Frankie just hung out at the camp, doing his homework. He had brought his homework out into the forest with us. I don’t know what that was about. When we got back, we didn’t think about it anymore. Every now and then I noticed he was scratching down there, and I didn’t say anything. If he needed to scratch, then scratch, that’s how I thought about it. We got back to the car and drove home and he was still scratching. I said something then because it is one thing to be all scratchy out in the wilderness and another thing to be scratchy in public. And the car was practically public.
“Man,” I said. “Why are you scratching?”
“Because it itches,” he said.
He jumped out of the car, and it started then. The swelling.
He couldn’t go to school the next week because something had happened to his ball sack. It had started to grow and, by Monday morning, was the size of a softball. By the end of the week, it was like a volleyball.
His mother took him to the doctor.
The doctor said his balls were full of fluid. They tried to drain his balls with a needle. They stuck it right in. Frankie said they sprayed his nuts with something to numb them but it still must have hurt. When I asked him, Frankie just said, “Well—” and made a face.
After that first visit, they grew to the size of a medicine ball.
The whole family was over at Frankie’s house and we couldn’t say, like, what’s wrong with him? We were all worried about Frankie, but we also made sure to wash our hands a whole lot because no one wanted to get what he had. I for one didn’t use the bathroom in his house. He sat in his room and he was fine except for this blanket that lay over him and this shape between his legs. That shape was his ball sack. “So what’s wrong?” I asked him from the door. “Did they get inflamed from scratching?”
“Leave me alone,” Frankie said.
“Does it hurt?”
“No. It doesn’t hurt but it still itches and I can’t scratch it. Mom says if I do, they might pop.”
“So what is it?”
“Elephantiasis,” he said.
“Elephantitis of the Nuts. But it’s really just Elephantiasis.”
I didn’t have anything to say to that. I felt bad for him. I’d been out in those woods, too. It could have been me, just as much as him.
That weekend it got bad. He called me and said that he thought he might die. They said it was infected, too, and that if it burst, “I’ll bleed to death in seconds.” He said, “I’ll bleed to death from burst balls.” Frankie started to cry. He had called me because I’d been there the whole time. Because it could have been me as much as him.
I said, “Hang in there Frankie. The doctors know what they are doing.”
They had given him some medication and drained his ball sack and then gradually the swelling went down and then finally we were all at Frankie’s house and he was walking around in a pair of jeans and seemed just fine. He shook his head. “I can’t go back to school, you know,” he said.
“They’ll get over it,” I said. “They’ll just be jealous because their balls are all normal sized.”
He didn’t go back though. He enrolled at the community college and finished that way. He just didn’t go back to school. Once your balls get the size of your head, I suppose that makes you an adult.
My penis began its testing sequence in the middle of seventh grade. In language arts, Mrs. Gilgi lectured on the expository essay. We had read Mark Twain, EB White, and some dry, succinct passages written for the seventh grade reading level—passages I found almost incomprehensible. It was late November. It was early morning and foggy outside. The maple trees that grew at the age of the athletic field lay like black streaks against pale, illuminated walls. Dew covered the blades of grass that had grown too long in the drizzle because the grounds keepers were waiting for a cold snap to leave things dry enough to mow. The radiator ticked and fizzled, emitting a rusty heat. There was nothing in the room remotely arousing at 8:23 a.m. Gilgi had long hair that didn’t hang down her head but rather curled and frayed in a thicket over her head. She wore long turquoise earrings, a sack-like dress, and wool socks secured with the rawhide straps of Birkenstocks. She was as sexless as EB White. The lights in the room: florescent tubes with a sanitizing glare unrelenting enhanced by the buffed and pocked linoleum flooring. And yet, in this room, my penis began a testing sequence. I was at my desk. I shifted and then it grew and locked into position and began, well, began to pulse. By this I mean the sides throbbed. The head flared and then relaxed and flared and relaxed. I almost ran out of the room, but could not move. I waited and wondered if I was having a seizure. Perhaps this was the last thing that happened to someone before they died? But the test sequence ran its course, and I learned then, that I had to be prepared for mid-region random drills. My body did not entirely belong to me anymore.
Our bodies were inadvertently virile. I played Dungeons & Dragons and spent too much time trying to incorporate the Succubus into the game based solely on the monster’s cleavage and Playboy pose. In high school, boys had mustaches. In an era of wide tires on V8s; striped shirts exposing chest hair and a single, glittering strand of gold chain; white and tan blue jeans stretched tight across the ass and tight at the ankles; any hair on a lip was not to be scorned but cultivated. Several boys wore long, drooping Fu Manchu mustaches. One kid had a beard. But for me, as soon as hair began to show on my upper lip, I began to shave. Gradually the hair turned into thick, sharp stubble. By the last bell at 2:20, I had five o’clock shadow. I had to take driver’s education to get a permit to drive. My body, however, was already moving toward something and I didn’t know what it was, but I had heard rumors.
We walked on the trail through the forest ruminating over what this meant, but we didn’t know. If our own bodies were mysterious (as they were) then a woman’s body was completely unknowable. We’d studied the literature for clues but it only provided us with an understanding of the literature. Revelations about the world where we lived remained untranslated.
I was new to the middle school. I walked to school with the Stoners who lived in the derelict ramblers near the pipeline. This area was older and developed in haphazard swashes compared to the planned unit development where I lived. My house sat behind sidewalks and a two-lane road edged with storm drains. The gravel roads in the Stoner’s territory were edged with deep ditches full of cattails. The occasional drunk driver tipped into the ditch. The houses lay far back from the road, past thickets of blackberries and rusting cars. The Stoners wore black jeans jackets, black Levis, and white Reebok’s shredded and stained from mowing lawns over the summer. They didn’t carry backpacks. Instead they carried a single slim folder adorned with the names of guitar bands, a notebook, a pencil stuffed into the O-wire. Jason was doing it with a neighborhood woman. “I mow her lawn, and let’s say, I haven’t been earning very much money,” he said.
This seemed implausible to me as it did to the rest of the Stoners. He said, “You don’t believe me?” We followed him down the gravel road, and waited in the fir trees under the power line, while he checked around the house. And then he knocked on the door.
What is he doing?
The door opened and a woman who must have been in her thirties opened it. Understand at 15, “in her thirties” is a perfect age for a woman to be. She wore blue jeans and a sweat shirt. He leaned in to kiss her. He clasped her shoulder and pulled her toward her. And then he let his hand fall across her chest and he grabbed her breast.
“Did you see that?”
He stepped into the house without even looking back at us and the door closed.
We said all at once: “A woman like that must know something. What does she see in him? His feet smell. I think he’s been wearing the same socks for the last week. How does something like this happen?”
We didn’t know.