This morning I’m filling out my registration for this year’s Bear Pride, which is to be held over Memorial Day in Chicago. For the uninitiated, the term “Bear” refers to larger gay men who usually choose to sport facial hair. They proclaim that they prefer to gather in groups with other “Bears” to get a little something-something and to fight the stigma of body shaming.
There is a lot of body shaming.
I know I don’t wear flannel shirts and a beard because they look particularly fetching on me. I wear flannel shirts and a beard because flannel shirts are easy to find in XXL, and a beard is really only the socially acceptable way to cover a triple chin, extra jowly.
So I will travel to Chicago for Bear Pride to NOT be nervous about my body and instead judge people on normal things like the wittiness of their quips, or the irony of their t-shirts, or inanity of their WOOF tattoos. [FYI to the uninitiated: Some Bears like to say “Woof.” Avoid these Bears. They are stupid, and this one word will be the extent of their conversation.]
Of course to help me not be nervous about my body, etc., libations will be involved. Many libations. In fact, the registration form for Bear Pride asks if the participant would like to spend an extra $90 to get a wristband that will allow him access to an open bar at two of the events. [I’m still crunching the numbers to see if $90 is worth it because you just know they’ll try to pull some BS like only covering drinks made with brands with names like Senator’s Club or Kamchatka or Prestone. Daddy’s not driving to Chicago to choke down well drinks.]
One thing that happens when I drink to mild excess in a room full of my Bear brethren is that my shirt comes off. Pursuant to my body shyness, I have to ask five friends if they think it a good idea for me to remove my shirt, and the usual response is “Why do you need permission to do that? Half the room has their shirts off.” So, I take my shirt off, making sure I tuck it between my belt and my pants. I go back to moving through the crowd judging WOOF tattoos. I feel free, momentarily unbound from the shackles of body shame. I might actually talk to somebody.
But then it happens. I get the bad touch.
No, not there.
Some libertine will reach out and rub my belly like I’m some sort of call-drink infused Buddha. Invariably, they’ll attempt to circle around to that well-known erogenous zone, the belly button. This is when I detach their arm at the socket and jam it, all the way to the elbow, into their own belly button while screaming, “It doesn’t feel good, does it?”
You see, for me, getting touch in the belly button is the opposite of pleasure. It’s not exactly pain. It’s more a complete absence of pleasure. At once erogenously frigid and invasively annoying might be the best way to describe it.
A bit of backstory… Besides the requisite wisdom teeth and tonsils, I have had two surgeries in my life where they had to put me under.
Both were on my belly button.
During my senior year of high school, I crafted biscuits at Sister’s Chicken and Biscuits on Riverside Drive in Dublin, Ohio. By February, I had been complaining about abdominal pain for several weeks. One evening the pain became quite severe I would say a 9.6 on that stupid pain-rating scale doctors on which doctors now force you to literally Yelp your pain; I’m saving 10 for that time in the future I actually catch fire. I stumbled into the walk-in fridge. I could sit on a milk crate and get a few minutes of cool air. No one would molest me because I was one of the few Sisters employees who had any business in the fridge. But even the cold air and milk crate weren’t working, so I cleared off a bottom shelf and curled up upon it. It was a slow night; no one found me until closing time.
I was leisurely rushed to Riverside Methodist Hospital. Myriad tests were performed. One involved injecting me with a fluorescent dye that I was deathly allergic to. Another involved pouring around a hogshead worth of a metallic milkshake up my butt to see if any thing leaked. Oh, stuff leaked.
Nothing was found via these tests. The word “psychosomatic” was whispered in front of me like I had never watched M*A*S*H before. Then there’d be noddings and further whisperings of “stress of mother’s death” followed by concerned looks in my direction.
Cohorts of medical students were marched through my room. “And you will notice the discomfort when you touch him…” The lead physician circled with two fingers. “…here.” Then a dozen students, most only a few years older than me queued up to poke me in the fucking belly button. This happened twice a day.
Finally, on the third day of poking, they decided to open me up for a little old-fashioned exploratory surgery. An orderly, the first gay male to ever see my penis, came in to the room to shave me because “we mustn’t have any nasty infections.” Then they injected me with some sort of concoction that, instead of relaxing me into drowsiness like it was supposed to, made me loudly recite the opening scene from Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life. I was screeching “Bring out the most expensive machine in the hospital!” so loudly that everyone seemed pleased as I counted backwards from 100 for the real anesthesia.
While I was under they took out my appendix because “as long as we were down there.” A foot of healthy intestine also had to go, but this time for a reason: It was attached to an ulcerated Meckel’s diverticulum. Apparently, I was only the second case of a bad Meckel’s in a non-baby person in the history of the hospital. It was explained to me –and a simple Wikipedia search in 2016 shows this to be bullshit –that I could think of the Meckel’s diverticulum as what happens when the part of your umbilical cord that’s inside your body doesn’t go away. As far as I was concerned, I had an ulcerated tube running from my small intestine to my belly button.
To a 17-yr-old who lost his mom at 16, it’s not too much of a stretch to believe that the reason his vestigial mom-tube became ulcerated was due to the stress of her death. So good job bring up dead mom issues, belly button toucher man.
The most recent navel mishap was in 2008 when I woke up one morning to discover that my innie was now an outtie. My lint-trap was a sundial. My little Butterball thermometer had popped. It hurt; even my softest, loosest T-shirts caused painful friction. I could just go shirtless to avoid the pain, or I could wear some sort of Baby Gap half-shirt, but it didn’t even have the decency to be a symmetrical outie. Instead, it chose to really only protrude in the NorthEast quadrant like some misshapen, unstable lava dome. I began to fear that I would never be pretty enough to take off my shirt next time etiquette called for it.
So I kept my shirt on.
However, this didn’t protect my belly. It seemed that whenever I would head out to one of my local NYC Bear watering holes, some randy gentleman, his courage rebar’d with much Pabst, would make a beeline to my belly button. The less-worse ones would treat it like an as yet undiscovered mega-nipple, circling it gently. The worse ones imagined it a fleshy dimmer switch that was somehow wired to my nether regions. The worse than worse one would attack it like it was a mega-nipple wired to their nether regions.
This made me a very flinch-y person. I’ve never been the most touchy-feely person, but I actually began recoiling from hugs. What kind of monster recoils from hugs? My good friends, the people from whom I wanted hugs the most, knew to not go in for the hug. No, the people who hugged me were those people who give bear hugs to people they’ve just meant and then get all bent all out of shape when you have to back away from the hug. “You’re getting a reputation, from people that don’t really know you, as kind of an asshole,” said my friend Damian, half-jokingly. He always has had my back when it comes to my front.
They repaired the hernia at NYU Langone Medical Center. Nothing interesting happened.
Hernia repaired or not, vestigial organ removed or not, the brain-effects linger, and I still don’t like you touching my belly button. No! Hands off, bad bear!
Yet, here I am going to Bear Pride, either with or without alcohol wristband. The genesis of this essay was the fact that, this many weeks out, I’m already starting to worry about some pushy beardy guy thinking he’s entitled to rub my belly for his three wishes. Then I’ll pull back, and he’ll hold back his arms and hands like he’s set off a proximity alarm in an art museum. Sometimes I’ll get a sarcastic “Pardon me!” But most of the time people genuinely seem to feel bad and walk away muttering apologies before I can get a chance to talk about the Meckel’s and the hernia. This, in turn, makes like I’m the first unpleasant thing they’ve encounters on . I then have no choice but to go stand in a corner with my arms in an unhuggable akimbo.
Or I’ll get the guy who won’t take no. He’ll follow me around, rubbing my belly any chance he gets. This scenario usually ends up with me trapped against an ice machine. I try to say, “No.” However, by this point I feel like I’ve lost all power; the best I can muster is a tiny, impotent squeak –one of those “NO!!!!!”s that through the power of dissociation translates into “Yes, please move on to the nipples.” So now I’ve got some asshole a-swirling on my navel with his right hand AND trying to tune in to Radio Albania with his left.
I want to cry.
I want to find my voice and scream and envelop him in a cloud of invective, cutting wit, and sheer banshee. I want my voice so powerful that a cascading flaccidity takes over his entire body from his dick to his pancreas his lizard-scum brain stem. I want my voice to cancel out his existence.
So, no, don’t give me that bullshit line “You shouldn’t be in THIS bar if you didn’t want people touching you.” I just want to grab a drink, engage in a little small talk, and maybe, just maybe, let someone gently circle and tease my………. WHO AM I KIDDING? GET THE HELL AWAY FROM THAT!
I respond best to smiles.