It was spring break of ’03 and nothing could touch me. I had just turned thirteen, the extended edition of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring was finally out on DVD, and I had just scored the lead role of William Lyon Mackenzie in my middle school’s rendition of 1837: The Farmers’ Revolt.
Life was good, with the notable exception that in a matter of days, I was scheduled to have a small amount of my genitals cut off, and would have only the remainder of the spring break to heal up before I’d be back in rehearsals for 1837, repeatedly taking foam swords to the groin during large, poorly choreographed group fight scenes determining the fate of Upper Canada.
I don’t quite remember how my stepfather first broached the rather delicate subject of taking a scalpel to my penis at an age when there was nothing more important to me in the world than my penis. I only recall that when I expressed the view that maybe, at thirteen, I was a little too old to be circumcised, he told me the story of the prophet Abraham, who, when at the age of eighty was ordered by God to become circumcised, had to perform the operation on himself, and with no anesthetic. As the day of my impending circumcision drew closer, I heard this story again and again from others. It was the circumcisional equivalent of “back in my day, we had to walk to school ten miles uphill both ways,” except that back in their day, none of them experienced anything close to an Abrahamic circumcision. Everyone who told this story had the good fortune of being circumcised as babies with a yelp and the quick flick of a scalpel.
Before the circumcision could actually happen, my stepfather had to find a doctor willing to operate on a patient roughly 140 pounds heavier and a lot more talkative than what they were used to. While there was no shortage of capable Jewish doctors willing to perform the operation as a purely secular, elective medical procedure, my stepfather found all these candidates to be woefully inadequate. While he never specified why, I suspected it was for the same reason I was never allowed to watch Seinfeld. After months of searching, he learned of an elderly Egyptian urologist with a small office in downtown Toronto who spoke highly of his steady hands, despite his age.
The waiting room at the circumcision doctor’s office looked like the waiting room for a third-rate psychiatrist — all cheap wood panelling and dust. On the receptionist’s desk there was a hard plastic mould in the shape of an infant with leg and arm restraints made of Velcro, but no receptionist.
When the elderly Egyptian urologist emerged, he seemed overly eager to circumcise me. In what little pre-op interaction I had with him, it became clear that he prided himself on his work, irrespective of the age of his patient. He spoke with the enthusiasm of a late-night infomercial host: zealous and boastful, his every other word punctuated by an accompanying hand gesture or overblown facial stretch. When he learned of my stepfather’s difficulty in finding him, he seemed genuinely disappointed. He believed himself Toronto’s premiere purveyor of high-quality and competitively priced circumcisions, and thought his reputation should have preceded him. I tried to imagine what his roadside billboard might say if he were to ever advertise. He struck me as the cash-for-gold guy of circumcisions: “Bring me your unused foreskin and I’ll give you a price on the spot!”
The operating room itself looked no different from the examination room of a walk-in clinic, with the exception of a few extra pieces of equipment. My stepfather sat in the corner, counting out prayers on his beads as I took off my pants and sat on the table, looking at anything I could to take my mind off what was about to happen: the machinery, the medical posters, the ceiling.
Before the operation started, the doctor explained that it would be performed under local anesthetic, but didn’t explain what local anesthetic actually meant. Propped up on one elbow waiting for a gas mask to be strapped to my face, I was unprepared as the doctor stuck a small syringe into the intersection between the base of my shaft and my pelvic bone. He let the needle hang.
“Do you feel that?” he asked.
He squeezed the subject in question between a latex-gloved thumb and forefinger. I said that I did, so he gave me another needle and another pinch, which I still felt. He gave me two more needles, and this time poked my upper thigh with some kind of medical instrument. He did this another four times, each time leaving the needle hanging, until there were eight small syringes hanging from my pelvis, like a porcupine. Numb from my belly button to my thighs, I looked away as the doctor picked up the scalpel.
The doctor’s office was just off King and Spadina. In another life I would get an internship just a few blocks away. I’d pass his office while running errands for my boss. Among the errands, I would occasionally be sent to a tailor to pick up my boss’s suits. It seemed no matter what time of the day I went, the tailor was always hunched over a table, hand-sewing a button back onto a suit jacket or shirt, masterfully moving his needle back and forth. He would tug roughly at the thread, but move with confidence, knowing the thread would not break and the jacket would not rip, ignoring the look on my face as he plunged the needle into the precious fabric again and again, going about his work with what can only be described as interested dispassion.
One of the machines spat out sparks that tickled and emitted a strange smell. As the operation went on further, I realized the smell was my own burnt flesh and singed pubic hair, and that the tickle was actually an electric current cauterizing my skin beneath the anesthetic. As if to make the machine slightly more sadistic, every time the machine was activated, it would emit a loud, prolonged beep that sounded like a heartbeat monitor flatlining. No one told this to my brother, who years later admitted that when he heard the machine while waiting in the next room, he thought I had died.
After a little under an hour, it was all over. The doctor wrapped it up in a hard plaster cast, prescribed some antiseptic cream and shook my hand.
Prior to the day of the operation, the doctor had called ahead to tell my parents that I should wear loose pants that wouldn’t transfer any fuzz or lint, and had also recommended that to further protect from any chafing, bumping, or any sort of accidental knocking, I bring a medium-sized salad bowl to act as a kind of oversized cup.
And so with the operation finished, I placed a stainless-steel salad bowl over my crotch and shuffled down King Street in a pair of extra-large, navy-blue silk pyjamas, holding my crotch bowl in place with both hands as I waddled all the way back to the car, which was parked three blocks away because my stepfather wanted to save on parking.
Almost a decade later, I drunkenly told this story to a friend-of-a-friend at a bar, who told me about how he was also circumcised when he was thirteen. When we discovered our shared history, he asked me if I had the same problem with smelling salts. When he saw I had no idea what he was talking about, he explained how for medically obvious reasons related to the hard plaster cast and the delicate stitches, his doctor had prescribed smelling salts that deflated erections upon their onset, the only downside of which was that they had an incredibly distinct odour that filled the entire house, so that no matter how surreptitiously he used them, he couldn’t help but broadcast a full and comprehensive schedule of when he was aroused to his entire family, the frequency of which his mother became considerably disturbed by.
I told him I was spared this embarrassment because I was not prescribed smelling salts. Instead, I was left to the mercy of the cruel and indifferent dictates of the involuntary erection schedule of a thirteen-year-old boy in the spring — a time when even a gentle breeze against your silk pyjamas might spark a chain reaction that would send you into a fit of agony.
After my brother and I returned home, our stepfather hosted a large celebration of our new manhood. At the end of the hall, away from all the action, my brother and I were set up in my parents’ room, lying side by side on the bed with our salad bowls, taking visitors one by one like a couple of herniated Mafia dons, every guest coming by and congratulating us on becoming men before slipping us each an envelope of cash. At the end of the night we counted out the money on top of our salad bowls and tallied just over two thousand dollars, seventeen hundred of which our stepfather took the following morning to pay himself back for the operations.
With the remaining three hundred bucks, my brother and I waddled into a Walmart and bought an Xbox, which broke after four days. At the end of spring break when I went back to school, my friends asked me what I did all week.
I told them I played Xbox.