October 8, 2006

Requiem for a piercing

"How long have you had it?" The heavily tattooed man had the stature of a Lord of the Rings extra. He was small, his posture awkward. He was Queequeg of the Shire.

I performed some quick calculations and reminded myself of my age. "Well, I'm 28 now, so that would make it.... Ten years."


In high school, I was a good kid. Sure, I instigated some drama, but for the most part, I was a good teenaged citizen. I was a straight-A student. I belonged to the environmental club, played the piano, and volunteered at the V.A. on weekends. I said no to sex, drugs, and alcohol. My non-controversial appearance was warmly sanctioned by my mother: Long blond hair, carefully applied makeup in neutral shades, perfectly average body weight, wardrobe by The Gap. There wasn't a crowd in Fargo that I couldn't blend right into.

Then I started college.

When my mother decided I needed to attend Carleton, she was drawn in by U.S. News college rankings and academic reputation. Neither she nor I realized that, at least in this case, the "liberal" in "liberal arts" said as much about the culture as about the curriculum.

I arrived at Carleton wearing a dress from The Limited and carrying a faux-Coach purse. I was greeted by women with Crayola-colored hair, lip piercings, and ironically applied glitter eyelashes. I was greeted by women who would never dream of using a blowdryer, applying makeup, or shaving their legs. I was greeted by women who spelled "women" with a y ("womyn") just to remove any reference to men.

At first, I was as frightened of my new classmates as they were of me. (My roommate, Michelle, a natural-outdoorsy type, later confided that my purse struck a note of terror in her heart).

Even more powerful than my vanity was my desire to fit in and be liked. Within my first month of college, I had successfully:

* Covered my expensive blond highlights with a coat of Electric Green Manic Panic hair dye.

* Retired my Gap wardrobe in exchange for broomstick skirts, thrift store sweaters, and angry womyn boots.

* Traded my purse for an army green backpack that I carried everywhere, like a turtle with its shell.

* Put away my Lancome and Estee Lauder makeup, leaving my face unadorned except for the occasional Friday-night application of glitter.

* Embraced the joys of binge drinking.

I was having the time of my life. I wasn't the most popular kid at school, but my openness to change helped me befriend people who had initially been alarmed by my homogenized, overly feminine appearance. And I'll be honest, I got a kick out of the fact that my mother would have been horrified by my new look, but she was too far away to exert any control.

One lovely fall day, my Resident Assistant, Carrie, a vibrant junior from Manhattan, came bounding into my dorm room, where Michelle and I were hanging out with our friend Sarah from down the hall.

"Girls, I've got the best idea ever! Next weekend, I'm going to drive to Minneapolis and get my belly button pierced! Do you guys want to come?"

We squealed with delight. It was the best idea ever. Green hair was one thing, but a piercing... a real piercing... It was the ultimate expression of my newfound teenaged counterculture ideology.

(Note: For those of you who think a navel piercing is a very mainstream way to express a rebellious streak, keep in mind that it was 1995. Back then, body piercing was only somewhat mainstream)

As the day approached, Sarah, Michelle and I grew increasingly excited. We did situps to tone our bellies for the inevitable showing-off that would ensue. We contemplated bead colors and ring styles. We discussed who should get pierced in which order, and whether or not we would have the courage to watch each other's procedures. We studied the healing benefits of tea tree oil.

And then, one day, it all fell apart.

I don't know who told Carrie, but she pulled me into her dorm room for a private meeting.

"Monica, how old are you?" she asked point blank.

I thought for a moment, but I couldn't lie. She wouldn't have asked me if she didn't already know the answer. "I'll be 18 in April."

"Did you know that you have to be 18 to get a body piercing?"

"Sarah told me they probably wouldn't card us."

"I'm sorry, Monica, but as your R.A., I can't in good conscience take you to get a piercing. If your parents found out, they could hold me, and maybe even the college, responsible. Unless you can get a signed letter from your parents giving permission..."

"Forget it."

"You can still come to Minneapolis with us."

I went with them, holding out against hope that Carrie would have a change of heart and let me get the piercing. Instead, I watched the three of them gleefully pick out their rings, discuss how the pain compared to their expectations, and then show off their piercings to the entire dorm upon our return.

That night, Sarah promised me that when I finally did turn 18, she would be the cheerleader for my piercing adventure.


By spring, Sarah had corrupted me like a friendly version of the bad kid on an After School Special. She had taught me how to smoke, and how to apply my smoking ability to other pursuits. She had helped cut my hair into a short and funky look, and she had dyed it traffic-cone orange.

On the day of my 18th birthday, we strolled through our quaint little college town of Northfield, looking for places where I could display my legal-adult status. We stopped at the tobacco store, the grocery store, and two gas stations, trying to find someone who would card me for cigarettes. They all gave me the benefit of the doubt, until I tried to buy a lottery ticket. Go figure.

Finally satisfied that I had been carded, we headed back to campus. We stopped by the piercing and tattoo place. It was closed, only open on weekends.

"Should I?" I asked Sarah.

"You're spending the summer at home, right?" she asked.


"Then I would wait. If you want to hide it from your mom, that will be a lot easier after it's healed. Mine took a good two months to heal."

She pulled up her shirt and showed me her little silver barbell. I ached with jealousy.

"Will you go with me in the fall?" I asked her.

"It's a deal."


It was a Saturday afternoon in the fall of 1996. I was a sophomore now, just a little more mature, and a little more aware of my identity and appearance. I had settled on an almost-believable shade of red hair. I had started wearing pretty makeup again, because I wanted to, not because I felt pressure from the oppressive patriarchy.

But I still wanted that piercing.

I had gotten my first tattoo the previous summer, so I was sure that I could handle the pain.

Sarah and I walked into the piercing and tattoo place, the only one in town, and we immediately got a strange vibe.

"Do you smell booze?" I asked Sarah.

"Do you want to leave?" she asked.

"No, I've waited too long. It's just one hole, right? What could possibly go wrong?"

I picked out a gorgeous ring, a purple rainbow pattern with a silver ball. I laid down on the piercing bed, with Sarah by my side. I looked straight at her to avoid seeing any of the equipment that was about to puncture my flesh.

"When it hurts, squeeze my hand," she instructed. "Squeeze my hand as much as it hurts."

It started hurting, and I squeezed. I watched the color drain out of her face. I heard the booze-smelling man with the piercing apparatus let out some curse words.

"Don't jam it in! You're using the wrong gauge!" his sober female assistant shouted.

"I almost got it... Damn!"

Time seemed to stand still. Sarah urged me to keep squeezing her hand, probably to keep us both from fainting.

"Sorry, sweetie, we're going to have to try this again with a bigger needle."

"Damn, that's not going to look pretty for a long time."

I was 18. I was an adult. I really wanted this ring. I was not going to cry.


That was ten years ago.

I've never worn a midriff top in my life, and I've been self-conscious about my belly for years. And still, I have kept the piercing. I've kept it as a reminder of the rebel I used to be. I've kept it because I still want to be just a little rebellious, just a little bit counterculture in a very familiar kind of way.

I went to see the Hobbitt Queequeg because I needed a new ring. My little silver barbell had stretched to its limits thanks to my expanding, baby-filled belly. I was looking for something bigger, more forgiving, like my maternity khakis.He sighed deeply. "I'm sorry. I just can't sell you a ring."


"I've gotta recommend you take it out. I've heard too many stories where the baby is allergic to the metal, or it gets infected..."

I felt like I had just been pierced with a wrong-sized needle. Was there any part of my life that wasn't going to be taken over by this baby?

"If you've had it ten years, though, there's a good chance it will stay open. Ten years is a long time."

Indeed it is.

No comments: