Everyone in the Emergency Room was disgusted when they saw me.
As I stumbled through the coughing, sneezing and moaning onlookers, I pressed my left hand up to the left side of my head. The pain was still radiating through me, and the blood that soaked through the bandages and onto my palm was a reminder that the most painful moment of my life was seemingly finished.
My surgery was over. My mother was clutching my right forearm, leading me back to the car. I could keep my balance fine without her, but she clung to me because I couldn’t hear anything. The bandage was wrapped tightly around my head, cocooning both ears in silence. Tufts of hair sprouted out of the gaps where the turban of gauze was haphazardly applied, the left side soaked completely through with dark blood.
Even though I was hurting, I still wondered what the stunned onlookers were thinking. Maybe they thought I was shot in the temple. Perhaps they thought I had attempted suicide. A freak, earlobe-lopping accident at the barbershop was a long shot, but still entirely possible. One thing was for sure: I was officially deformed for life, and I could have easily prevented it by not being such a selfish, spineless, prideful kid.
I had turned eighteen less than two months prior, and for someone so intent on being treated like an adult, having my mother drag me out of the ER wasn’t necessarily what I had in mind. For as concerned as she was with my well-being, she still took a moment to revel in my misfortune when we got to the parking lot.
“Tell me again how great it is to be eighteen,” she said with a satisfied grin.
I couldn’t hear a word she was saying.
ONE HOUR EARLIER.
“AAAUGH! God f***ing damn it!”
I was screaming so loudly, the entire wing of the hospital must have heard me. I was face-down on the operating table, strapped in tight and given no medication for the pain. Instead, two female nurses did their best to console me as the doctor began the process of cutting the back of my left earlobe off.
“Ryan!” my mom exclaimed. “Don’t swear!”
“It’s okay,” one of the nurses said. “This is a very painful procedure.”
“SHIT PISS CHRIST,” I howled through gritted teeth, my face mashed against the vinyl gurney.
I felt every scalpel slice. I heard every incision. I felt the warmth of the blood running down my head, and in my peripheral, I could see the mountain of crimson gauze the nurses were using to soak it up. If you were to tally up every drop of blood I had spilled in the seventeen years leading up to this moment, this topped them all combined.
“This is one of the more…pervasive infections I’ve seen,” said the doctor in a horrible display of bedside manner. I responded by repeatedly kicking myself in the back with my heels. It was literally all I could do.
“Let’s start suction,” the doctor said, motioning to the quieter of the two nurses. She then produced a device I normally see at the dentist’s office, only this time around, it wasn’t being used to remove fluoride and lukewarm water from my palate. It was being used to suck the pus and blood from the gaping hole in the back of my head.
As you can assume, the sound of this was repugnant, and the sensation was unbearable. I was making up curse words by this point.
“AAAUGH! TONY SHIT-ASSING LITTLE!”
This went on for about 45 minutes, until the doctor felt that he had sufficiently cleaned out the infected earlobe. “We’re just going to bandage it up for now and let you clean it periodically until it heals,” he said. “For the love of God though, don’t OVER clean it. Jeepers…that lobe blew open like a spider egg; you’re lucky the infection didn’t get into your bloodstream.”
“Thank you for your time,” I said, composing myself as the nurses unstrapped me and began wrapping the gauze turban around my head. One of them got my mom’s attention. “Please assist him out; his hearing may be impaired.”
ONE DAY EARLIER.
“You have to go to the hospital right now,” Celia said. Thankfully, she was speaking to me again.
My girlfriend was checking out the back of my ear; I had been hiding it as best I could for the last six weeks, but it was becoming too big of a concern (emotionally and literally) to ignore.
Every day, the infection seemed to get bigger. No amount of ointment, rigorous cleaning or gentle massage seemed to do the trick. The pain was intense, and the swelling was now at a veritable breaking point. “It looks like a peanut M&M full of pus,” Celia said, silently contemplating just how much of a naive doofus her boyfriend really was.
“Serves you right, really,” she chirped as she inspected the discolored lump. “This would have never happened if you wouldn’t have ditched me.”
“I…ouch…I already told you I was sorry,” I said. “Besides, it…OW!…it wasn’t my fault. And it was my birthday.”
“Yeah…how’s being eighteen working out for you, by the way?”
“Okay, that’s enough. I’ll go to the hospital tomorrow.”
TWO DAYS EARLIER.
I reached my breaking point on St. Patrick’s Day.
At school, all of us seniors wore shamrock-shaped nametags around our necks, and throughout the day we would give our lanyards away to a person of our choosing. This could be a significant other, a good friend or merely a random passerby (if you didn’t care). Like most high school gimmicks of this nature, the popular kids were given the most nametags, and the rest of us felt like the Sneetches without stars.
I was sitting in the library, doing the People Magazine crossword puzzle, waiting for Celia to show up so I could give her my lanyard as a way to apologize. Surprisingly, nobody had noticed my infected ear to this point; I was covert in my mannerisms and always backed away from friends when I ended conversations. Sort of.
Just then, Paul strolled in. Paul was a gangly, overbearing, foul-mouthed bully (one of those kids that got held back in kindergarten and took it out on the rest of the class for the next 12 years). I usually steered clear of Paul’s wrath, but he was on the warpath today, snatching lanyards from around the necks of anyone in his way. I’d say he was sporting about 30 of them by the time he got to me.
“I’ll take this,” he grunted, as he violently yanked the lanyard from around my neck with an upward thrust. I was in the midst of standing up as this happened, perfectly content to remove the nametag myself and simply hand it to the mongoloid… but I didn’t do it in time. The pain hit me a millisecond before I realized what had happened: the back of the lanyard was snagged on my massively swollen earlobe, and Paul was tugging on it with all his might.
I’m not one to pick fights with bullies, but not only was I in pain, I also faced potential eternal embarrassment if my secret was discovered. Losing the nametag was no big deal; having the Class of 2000 discover an alien life form growing out of the back of your ear is another disaster altogether. I flipped out and started swinging until the lanyard came loose and we had to be separated.
Minutes later, I ran into the bathroom to survey the damage. The cyst was bleeding and hemorrhaging, and I spent the next 10 minutes getting it to stop long enough to face my peers for the remainder of the day. Celia, expecting to receive my shamrock, continued to not speak to me.
I couldn’t do this anymore. I had to tell someone.
TWO WEEKS EARLIER.
People with OCD shouldn’t get their ears pierced.
Everything I read preached constant cleaning and meticulous attention, but nobody said anything about the risks of over-cleaning and excessive attention. Using alcohol, saline and peroxide to the point where your body no longer manufactures the necessary chemicals with which to properly ward off infection and allergy. Chalk it up to inexperience; this was my first time.
When the swelling initially began, I did my best to drain it naturally and let nature do the rest of the work. However, once things began to get out of hand, everything closed up shop and I was unable to get anything out of there. Even my earring was stuck.
Nonetheless, I kept this a secret, mainly to save face in front of my girlfriend (who wasn’t talking to me) and mother (who was pissed off beyond words), but mostly because I was embarrassed and terrified. This was supposed to be something I did to look cool and rebellious, not something I did because I wanted to go to the hospital and get a piece of my head lanced off.
ONE MONTH EARLIER.
On the day of my 18th birthday, I was supposed to be at the high school. Celia was playing in the school’s Pep Band, and I promised her that I would be there to see her play for the first time. However, my friends had different plans for me.
“We’re taking you to the mall to get your ears pierced. It’s free on your 18th birthday.”
“Guys, I really don’t want to do this. Besides, I need to be back at the school. Celia’s playing in the-“
“So what? You’re not leaving the mall until this gets done.”
At this point, my friends had a 60/40 stroke over my decisions compared to Celia. However, today was the last day they would misuse their power of manipulation over me, as from February 2, 2000 onward, this Balance of Power switched permanently. In a moment of teen selfishness, I went along with this excursion, and Celia played her first Pep Band concert in front of nobody. I apologized to her from a pay phone in the Food Court, but she was having none of it.
The piercing didn’t hurt, but my anxiety was already in hyperspace. I asked volumes of questions concerning care and maintenance; why I didn’t just tear it out when I got home is beyond me. I guess part of me thought it was cool, and at that point in my life, I was doing anything I could to demonstrate my newfound independence in front of my mother.
That night, I burst through the front door of my mom’s house sporting my piercing with pride.
“It’s great to be eighteen!” I shouted. And it was.
11 YEARS LATER.
Celia, now my wife, claims that it looks like a ‘baby’s butt.’
She’s referring to the back of my left earlobe, which long ago shrunk and healed up, but not before leaving me with a lump of misshapen scar tissue that (to her, at least) looks like the rump of a newborn. I never got another piercing, and to this day, my mother reminds me about the masterful judgment lapse on my first official day of adulthood.
We all make mistakes. Some of us get arrested. Some of us get our asses handed to us in an alley. For me, I just wanted to impress my friends and rebel against my parents in the most stereotypical way possible. In doing so, I was reminded that when it comes to me, there’s no such thing as ‘the most stereotypical way possible.’ I’ve heard a lot of horror stories about tattoos and piercings, but most of them don’t end with “And then they lanced my earlobe off.”
Lesson learned. Again.