Sissy and the Penises

Sissy Sees Something New

When I was eighteen, I was plagued by penises. I wished I could talk to a penis counselor about it, someone who would guide me on how to manage them, how to hold my own against them.

I imagined this counselor would roll her eyes and explain that men were often controlled by their penises, the way they said women were controlled by their emotions.

She would screw up her mouth and talk like a man:

“It wasn’t my fault; I did my best, but you see it’s a very strong penis and beyond my control.”

“I thought of putting it in a cage, but it was so hard to sit.”

“I swear I was asleep when it happened, or maybe drunk. Maybe it wasn’t even my penis; maybe it just looked like mine?”

But this counselor didn’t exist. Instead, I lived in a world ruled by behavior no one mentioned.

The women’s movement was just hitting colleges but it would take a while before it actually changed the way young women reacted to the way men behaved. In the meantime, my subway ride to school in Brooklyn was always crowded. I’d get on near the beginning of the line but already there were no seats, so I’d put my hand on the pole. People got in at every stop, and I hunched my shoulders and kept my books near my waist.

More people got on and they pressed and pressed against each other, giving or taking an inch, each one pretending they saw nothing, heard nothing, smelled nothing. They shuffled their feet, murmured “Excuse me” or “Sorry” to no one in particular when they stepped on a foot. No one yelled about hurt feet. Perhaps the feet one stepped on were bodiless—left behind in the rush to escape, dropped or forgotten, like winter gloves.

Shuffle, squeeze, adjust, lean, look away. I did it too. I was trying to match everyone else so I wouldn’t stick out.

Then I would feel it, the fingers snaking at me, prodding up against my crotch. They were always hard fingers, like sticks of polished wood. I’d squirm, twist around, settle into a new position, and the fingers would nudge me again, sensing me, knowing I was too embarrassed to make trouble. I’d squeeze myself away from the pole so I could twist, but then I was packed in with nothing to hold as the train jerked, as I fell against a jacket, a shoulder. And then someone would fall against me full length, even without a curve on the track. And the bodies would press, an upper arm wedged into my breasts, legs tightening against my thighs. Someone would begin to rub.

And all of this in silence. I’d twist my head to look, and no one was looking at me. The faces were blank. Perhaps it was a mistake? Perhaps I was being virginal, suspicious; perhaps no one was rubbing, they were merely steadying themselves against the jolts of the train. I turned sideways, squeezing my books in place as a defense. Every day, to and fro, the penises reared and struck.

One day I sat in the cavernous main room of the New York Public Library, researching a paper. At the table across from me I noticed a man with mad hair. His face was elastic, the skin stretched a little loosely over long strong bones. His hair stuck out electrified, like cartoon hair. His eyes burned. I wanted to stare at him. He caught my furtive glance once and struck me through the spine with his look. He was one of those people whose glance had power. I felt singed.

I kept my head down but I wondered: was it passion, that look? Fierce, unabridged passion, the kind I’d read about, that caused operas to be composed, amazing books to be written, paintings that scandalized, passion that caused darkness itself to move in unspecified ways? Could a woman ever have that look?

I lost track of my research. I was supposed to be writing pertinent quotes on my index cards. But he might be my demon lover. Did I want a demon lover? And I wondered: could I ever be a demon lover? I dropped the thought because I was a virgin and I wasn’t sure how I would ultimately feel about sex. My only experience with it took place in the subways, and it was nasty.

I left the library before he did. I passed him, slowly, trying to see what he was reading—trying not to be seen trying to see. He appeared to have a grubby notebook in front of him, not a book. There were a few words in the center of the page.

I considered what those words might be. My demon lover was a poet, a writer, a visionary. I could be his Xanadu, his Kubla Khan, or at the very least, his stately pleasure dome. A nice heat spread through me.

But the heat was spent on the way home, once I was back on the train and in the mob of silent pressing bodies, of penises like rifle shafts.

My friend Marta went home one day with ejaculate on her coat. She went to confession, ashamed and humiliated; perhaps she thought she was an occasion of sin for someone else.

One day at school, in the student lounge, my eye caught a certain furtive movement and I looked up to see a man jerking off across from me.

Not exactly across from me—more obliquely, since the lines of seating were arranged in a large square U.

His eyes were on me. He was panting.

It was the first time I had actually seen a grown-up penis—if such a quick shocked glance could be considered seeing.

I looked around rapidly. No one had noticed him; the lounge was still relatively empty. His eyes were watching, his mouth was parted. Perhaps I saw the tip of his tongue. Because no one else saw him, I wasn’t sure what the right reaction was. Should I shout? Laugh? Call for police? My heart was pounding, my hands were sweating, and I got up, pacing abruptly first in one direction then the other, then I left.

It was days before I could tell anyone, before I could make it amusing. I felt so unworldly.

An outbreak of flashing hit campus. The administration, even the students indulged it. Jokes were made in the paper and on TV. But as more sightings were reported, followed by complaints, a burst of cafeteria discussions suggested this was a reaction (or overreaction) to feminism. As political explanations were thrown back and forth, feminists patrolled in twos around the lounges, looking for that man. He soon disappeared. I forgot about him and went on with school and work.

I worked part time in a combination book-and-art store, very trendy in 1970. In the back were cases of reproduction Egyptian jewelry—scarabs, amulets, pharaoh’s rings. On slow days I could spend hours sitting by the cases, reading, glancing up if someone shambled by.

A lumpy man in a dark overcoat edged his way along the cases one night, starting at the farthest end, staring speculatively. I said, “Let me know if you want to see anything,” because the cases were locked, and he nodded.

I was reading a book, no doubt a mystery, for relaxation. I liked Chandler at that period, I liked the dark beat of his sentences.

I only glanced up once or twice to check if the man needed help.

I liked the store although I didn’t make much more than minimum wage. In a pinch, I could study or write papers on my shift, though it was hard to concentrate. Instead, it became a kind of goof-off. I could drift around my head, occasionally surfacing with a vague smile and a hand outstretched with the keys for the locks. Over the weeks the goods seemed cheaper and cheaper, and then they got very familiar and comforting.

Out of the corner of my eye I saw the customer settle against the counter ten feet away from me. He was a mouth breather. I was becoming more aware of him, but I was distracted.

Someone in the store had placed a little note in my book, and I found it as I turned the next page. It said “hi!” I was wondering whether it was from the boy I liked best.

His breathing was louder, and I looked up.

Pink and red and slightly gray, his penis poked out as his hand slid up and down. This time I stared. His face was mostly turned to the pillboxes under the glass, but his eyes were on me. When he caught me looking, his breaths sharpened and his hand jerked faster.

I jumped up, yelling. I recognized that penis. I’d know that penis anywhere. It was the penis from the school lounge, and it jerked at me like a finger wagging warningly, as if to say, We’re everywhere. We’ll find you.

Sissy meets a Penis

I started dating later that year and lost my virginity to someone in one of my classes. Once I was over the surprise, I peeked at my lover’s penis. His didn’t look as heavy as the man’s in the bookstore. I remembered Sylvia Plath’s comment on her first glimpse, and yes, it did look like a turkey neck and turkey gizzards. So be it.

I found I liked sex. I was delighted with it. I hadn’t known that sex was warm and comforting in addition to exciting and urgent. And I was happy enough to move on to another boyfriend after the first one left. That first one, I decided, was the trial penis; this one was the real thing. I was interested in penises. They were, after all, tied to the exciting and urgent part. My friend Marta had a lover now, too, and I brought up how strange penises were, and how they weren’t aesthetically pleasing.

She laughed. “You don’t have to look, you know. I’m not even sure you’re supposed to look. I mean, I sneak a peek every so often, but I just prefer to think about his eyes or his mouth; those I could look at forever. Wonderful.” She kissed the air.

“But it’s kind of essential to them. I mean, men and their penises—kind of like women and their hair.”

She thought about it and sighed. “God. You’re right. Should I start complimenting it?”

“Just drop a hint, now and then, how much you like it. That’s what I do. And I pat it affectionately for no good reason, just to show I’m paying attention.”

Marta was thoughtful. “You’re good at sex?”

“I thought I wouldn’t like it, but I do. Not only that,” I lowered my voice a little. “I like penises—I mean they’re like a strange animal, aren’t they? The way they behave, how hard to control but how easily pleased. And from what I’ve seen—which I admit isn’t much—they all look different.”

“Well, all breasts look different, don’t they?”

“True.” We walked over to a patch of grass under a small tree and sat. The campus didn’t have much in the way of grounds. “But I want to see more penises. It’s odd, isn’t it? I mean women don’t get to really see a lot of penises, get to analyze them or just satisfy their curiosity.” I was maintaining a strictly professional tone; I didn’t want to sound embarrassed and, in fact, I wasn’t embarrassed—I just had never said anything like this before. Marta and I were both modest as far as the sexual revolution was concerned; we were for it—but it seemed to be meant for someone else. And I didn’t want sex with a lot of penises; I just wanted to become more educated. They were, in fact, everywhere and now I wanted to find them.

Marta had been picking at weak little blades of grass; I wouldn’t have done it, I think the blades were numbered and counted at the end of each semester. We wouldn’t look like an Earth Day kind of student body if she plucked them. “Do you think Tony would mind it if you photographed his penis?” I finally asked. As soon as I thought it, I said it. It was either that or never asking. She laughed outright—a good response, considering. “I can’t imagine…,” she started to say, and then looked thoughtful. “I have no idea how he would feel about it. Funny. I’m sure he would never ask me to have my stuff photographed. This is actually kind of interesting. It’s kind of revolutionary in a way. I’ll never be a revolutionary in any other way.”

I don’t know if I would have gone ahead, really, I was merely thinking out loud—but the fact that Marta found it interesting nailed it for me. It was revolutionary. I wasn’t aware of any other women doing it. (Though if they were, how would it be distributed? Who would handle the marketing? So I was thinking of marketing?)

We discussed it a little bit more. We were afraid we wouldn’t get the photos developed, that it would bring in some cops investigating porn if we brought it to a local photo shop. Our school had a photo club, however, and we looked it up and went to the next meeting. We asked if anyone was developing their own film (they all shared a developing room, it turned out, that they’d set up in someone’s basement). The guys in the club all agreed to contribute, too, as long as they could do it anonymously. There was only one girl in the club, but she was intrigued, too, and said she would ask around. The fact that the guys could just produce the photo—didn’t have to sit in front of anyone else—and that the photo would be anonymous—this made it easy. We were off.

Sissy and the Penis Business

Word spread from the photography club, and the penis photos came in. Some showed the man in full-frontal glory with his whole body and a grinning head, but mostly it was just as I wanted, just penises, flaccid or erect or both, in good lighting and bad, some with rings or even tattoos and one with a sore, but mostly unadorned and elemental.

Marta and I debated what to do with it all. We approached the university with a request for an installation, and they buried us in paperwork from one department to another. We even got an interview or two with various deans, all of whom looked a little trapped. It didn’t seem like a university project.

I was ranking the penises, separating them into phylum and genus. Thin, fat, short, long, wrinkled, shiny, twisted, pink, red, brown, black—there was a fascinating variation in the form along with its consistent essentials. I tried to eliminate duplicates, and then I got interested in pursuing the identity of a penis through its various shapes—ie, flaccid and erect. Could you match them up if given a selection? Yes, you could. Or I could.

Marta was an artist and did some silk screening, and on a whim she made a T-shirt with Tony’s penis on it and gave it to him for his birthday; he loved it. I didn’t know if my boyfriend, Clay, would have liked one. Probably not; he hadn’t allowed me to photograph him, and his original reaction—a kind of pained forced amusement—kept me from showing him more than the initial few.

Marta made other T-shirts, and we sold a few, secretly, on campus, to women who brought us their lover’s photos and wanted one. We talked about expanding our business, and made up various test T-shirts. We were a little worried about royalties.

Marta was becoming extraordinary, and I was too. I liked that about myself—how I had ended up in a totally new environment, radical, maybe even revolutionary. And it was a brand-new work; we were the forefront of a new movement.

Because other people were catching on.

These were the times: women experiencing and exploring areas that had seemed too male, too threatening, even too unattractive for them. Men have always explored the female body; it was time for women to look at what men were all about and evaluate it.

“I can’t help but think of them as friendly, now,” I said to Marta. “I used to find them aggressive. But they’re not aggressive, are they? The men might be, but not them.”

“Oh, I think it’s the other way around,” Marta said. “We’re taking them out of context, after all.”

“True. But if you put them back in context, then you’ve got hands and feet and nasty thoughts. Take them away from that….”

“They’re not kittens,” she said firmly.

It was that statement—kittens—which immediately brought to mind people who put kittens in clothes, and I had my next project: dressing penises in outfits. I got doll’s clothing and placed the items on a flat surface to photograph. Then I cut out the outfits from the photos I took and placed them on pictures of penises, and photographed that. I often chose female outfits but cowboys sometimes figured into it, as did astronauts and even doctors. I placed a few of my photos, made into cards, in specialty shops. There were a few new sex-toys shops and I placed the cards there, too.

“Look at this!” Marta said one day, handing me a newspaper article.

Someone was baking penis cookies and penis cakes.

“That’s one we missed,” I said, groaning.

“They’re perishable,” she pointed out. “I don’t know how many people are going to get them. Joke items, that’s all.”

“It’s a good joke,” I conceded.

“Maybe we have a better joke?” Marta, who had a soft slow voice, had a sweet smile as well. She looked at me hopefully. We suited each other. She thought I was smart and fast; I thought she was strong and warm.

“Coffee cups? Pencils? Coasters?” I asked.

She shook her head and began to finger things in our work area. We had rented a basement below a gift shop; it had casement windows at street level, letting in light and disembodied feet. Marta tapped at the desk, shifted some pads and pens, moved the phone, some envelopes and order forms, a calendar.

“Calendars,” she said, a little bit of surprise in her voice.

“Penis calendars,” I said, feeling a rush of excitement. “Different penis themes. Santa penis, penis flowers, Fourth of July penises, famous penises in history….”

We giggled, delighted with each other. Calendars! So easy! So obvious!

I told Clay, my boyfriend, that evening as we sat together on the sofa. He had draped his hand over my shoulder, and I felt his fingers go quiet.

“You don’t think it’s a good idea?” I asked.

“What is this?” he asked. “I’m not sure what it means. You’re obsessed with penises, other men’s penises. What are you telling me?”

“I’m not telling you,” I said. I saw the fretful eyes, the tight mouth. “Men paint nudes, photograph them. It’s art.”

“What are their wives or girlfriends thinking?”

“Well,” I said, thinking about the endurance of artists’ wives, but failing to find their joy. “We don’t use live models,” I said. “So there’s a lot of distance. It’s objective, not subjective.”

“But it’s the subject I’m discussing,” he said. “It’s okay for a while—amusing—but what are you searching for?”

“I don’t know that I’m searching,” I said, trying to find the right explanation. “I’m just interested, I’m just admiring.”

“Exactly,” he said, springing up from the sofa and slapping his thighs in the process. “What satisfied, what happy woman would do that?”

“So that’s it,” I said. Clay imagined himself lined up in contrast to the rows of smooth penises, wrinkly penises, a blurred and non-unique figure. Was it my fault he felt so inadequate? Had I failed to nurture him?

He was a kind, friendly, comforting young man; he liked to be amused by me, and I thought I was failing him now. Just what did he imagine—that I chose them over him? There was no need for choice; why did everyone believe life was so rigid? Why wasn’t there room for love and interest as well? I tried to persuade him—I thought ably and supportively—but he said he couldn’t get it out of his head, what my head was filled with, as if he stood on a conveyor belt. “There’s definitely a line between interest and obsession. I’m not saying you’re there,” he said, raising his hand to hold off my reaction, “I’m saying I’m thinking you are, and that’s changing everything.”

I hesitated—after all, it’s not as if I’m a human being made without doubts. I hesitated; I flushed; I lowered my head. But all the time I thought, “He’s wrong.”

“Do you want to become famous as the girl who does all the penises?” he asked, sounding triumphant.

“No. I’m the girl who made art out of penises,” I said. “Like men make art out of women’s breasts, or the curve of their hips.” I sounded just as triumphant as he had. I thought I had trumped him. But at that point, really, it didn’t matter to either one of us; we weren’t listening to the emotion behind the words; we had stopped that long before. And so Clay left me.

I had trouble keeping my serenity for a while. “Clay kept thinking I must feel he’s inadequate or I wouldn’t be interested. How does Tony handle it?” I asked Marta.

“Tony thinks it’s a gas. Sometimes I wonder about him,” she said.

“If we were making calendars out of hands, would they be interpreting so much?”

“We’re not doing hands.”

I shrugged.

“I don’t know, though,” Marta continued. “If Tony threatened to leave, I think I would stop.”

“Would you?” I thought she was taking it too lightly, either way. She didn’t look upset at the notion of Tony leaving; she didn’t look upset at the notion of giving up the penises.

“It’s just calendars,” she said.

Which I found offensive, but I held my tongue. I knew now that this was art, or at least artistic—and it was also a cultural statement; it was groundbreaking. I thought we were groundbreakers. It wasn’t monumental, even I knew that, but it was important in a small, topical way.

Marta continued because Tony stayed; for whatever reason he thought what she did was hilarious. Did he patronize her? Was patronizing less offensive than Clay’s distaste? It was less offensive to me.

So I was alone except for art, and it concentrated me.

Marta was cheerful and helpful and she sorted the penises and spoke to photographers and models and printers and novelty stores, and we had orders for holiday calendars that made it all exciting.

I spent time wondering if there was any point in sacrificing Clay for something I found funny and interesting rather than world-shaking. Maybe it was world-shaking. But there was no principle here I was defending, only that there was no reason not to do it. I wasn’t rushing barriers for feminism, or sexual equal rights, or artistic equal rights, none of those, and yet I felt I was the only one who truly found it innocent and natural. But if they didn’t—was I giving up love for a principle that ultimately mattered little to me? A stubbornness seeped through me; I wouldn’t allow them to make it matter to me.

I stood one night in the room with all the photos, trying to decide if it was worth it to dedicate my life to this study, and I began to go through the folders and drawers, picking out the ones that appealed to my mood, and I arranged a group of soft penises, nested in their scrotums. Sleeping, I thought: small and almost plush.

I named the calendar that: Sleeping Penises. I sent one to Clay after he left. I had nothing to be ashamed of, nothing to defend.

I still sometimes thought the world was ruled by penises, and how odd that was if they were to be kept away from women (for mostly women bought my calendars).

I had once thought penises were dangerously stalking me. That isn’t how I see it now. They hide, they’re sensitive; they fear the light of day. Men don’t care much for the calendars if they see themselves diminished in them; that’s really what happened to Clay. But taken out of context (which is, I think, how things should be), they’re funny. Men like to keep themselves mysterious; they like women to think that their sex is strong and powerful and masterful; no one wants to see their manhood sleeping. But of course everything sleeps, just as everything wanes, and power is only power when everyone agrees to it.

The orders roll in for Sleeping Penises, the little dears. Women see the calendars and laugh out loud. I hear the sound and l relax. It’s what I should have done, that day I saw the penis in the lounge: I should have laughed out loud, good and strong.

Karen Heuler ’s stories appear in over 120 literary and speculative magazines and anthologies, as well as in a number of Best Of anthologies. Her fifth and sixth story collections (one on dementia and one on dark fantasy) and her fifth novel (an outrageous satire) will be coming out this year. She’s won an O. Henry Prize and various other awards and wouldn’t mind winning a few more.