We are delighted to present Ellis Panetta's essay "Techniques for Home Sutures," nominated by instructor Elizabeth Weiss, as runner-up for the second annual David Hamilton Undergraduate Creative Writing Prize. This prize is sponsored by anonymous donors who wish to honor the mentorship and support they and other students at the University of Iowa received from Emeritus Professor of English David Hamilton. In addition to publication online, Panetta will be awarded a $250 scholarship.
Things they don’t tell you: the piercer will look like a flabby Salvador Dalí scented with tobacco, and when you walk in he will be shirtless and halfway through getting an immense tiger tattooed across his back.
He speaks as awkwardly as I do, but he is a professional. His tone, in emails and in person, is unobtrusive but adamant. I am sixteen. He refuses to pierce anyone younger.
The piercing room shines, painted cream yellow, with sketched tattoo designs in dark frames along the ceiling. It smells clean. Not disinfected, but scrubbed. Someone likes lemon floor cleaner.
The effect is an atmosphere, in some nonspecific way, of queerness—this is a tattoo parlor, a place for rebellion and revolution, but it loves its patrons with the fierceness of motherhood and scours itself clean for their protection. No space has been carved for us in the medical world of glass and bleach and cotton swabs and stainless steel, so we make do.
(Things they don’t tell you: caring for the piercings will be the first way you’ve ever loved yourself.)
(I am eleven, and in my head lives the image of the woman I intend to grow up to be. She smiles like the Mona Lisa; me, but thin with elegant, near-invisible glasses, in a dark red velvet dress—a real Medieval princess. Her hair is long, sun-bleached to honey brown, and wound around her head in a crown of braids. She probably has a garden and an ankle-length skirt, a gym membership and a chicken coop.)
(I slip farther and farther behind her the older I get. She should be effortless. She should be easy-breezy-beautiful. She should laugh like a running stream.)
(I can’t find the energy to shower.)
(I sleep too late and care too little. I keep my head down and my voice quiet. I can’t bear to get up in class and throw away a tissue, can’t bear to feel people’s eyes on me for even that long. I buy sports bras. I wear them every day, I sleep in them until I get rashes and I keep sleeping in them. I’m not old enough to be a woman. Please, please don’t make me be a woman.)
(I think this is normal.)
I sit sideways on the rickety padded chair. The piercer and I avoid eye contact as he dabs dots of green felt pen on my lip and lets me check the placement. He secures a clamp around my lip, tight enough to hurt, and unceremoniously shoves a needle through it.
It is a religious experience in the length and depth of its discomfort. The needle, stuck through the holes in each pad of the clamp, tugs at me while the piercer wiggles the clamps out from around it. He turns away to prepare the jewelry and leaves me with the needle resting against my face like a toggle closure and pulling my lip out.
I try not to breathe through my mouth. The piercer slips the needle out and follows it with the stud. Solid metal scrapes through the newly-opened flesh, and my breath goes shallow with the exquisite strangeness of the pain. He fits the end onto the stud. Pinches too hard and scratches my skin. I narrowly avoid biting him.
(Things they don’t tell you: you don’t owe anyone anything.)
(I am fifteen, and this morning I looked in the mirror and recognized myself in my own eyes. Young, certainly, and imperfect, unformed in a way I can’t verbalize, but me. I hear the word “transgender” and my stomach flips with my desperation to own it—I’m bigger than my body still, clumsy in my enthusiasm, a colt stumbling over its legs from its longing to run.)
(I am eighteen, and I am leaving behind the name that has been mine all my life. My father is helpless and his hurt invades me—he gave me this name when he first looked at my small and malleable scarlet body in his arms. I catch the edge of the studs with my tongue, worry them, twist them like I always do when I’m nervous. A reminder of what’s permanent, what matters. What I choose. Who I choose to be.)
The other piercing goes faster and hurts more. Then it’s finished, and I can’t close my mouth. I hang off to the side, lip swollen and hot and throbbing, while my mother pays with my hard-earned hundred dollars and chats with the piercer. I should thank him, smile, something, but any movement that stretches my lip hurts too much to bear.
At home, I suck on ice cubes until my lip feels as numb as a chunk of rubber stitched to my face. Then the adrenaline runs out, and I sleep for the rest of the day.
(Things they don’t tell you: you must cut the disease out; it will not heal by itself.)
(I have come to understand that this path of mine requires me to take knives to my flesh; not to hurt it, but to heal it. It is a strange rite of passage—we lace our skins with scars and ink and metal, and make ourselves cocoons, suits of armor. We were given too-soft bodies. We must build defenses. We must bleed for them. If we do not suffer purposefully, with glad consent, we will be made to suffer against our will.)
The week passes in a blur of saline soaks and mouthwash and careful chewing. I catch the ends of the studs on my teeth every time I open my mouth, and every time the jolt of pain makes me worry I’ve torn something. Halfway through the healing process, once the swelling has gone down, I go back to the piercer to get shorter studs put in, and again experience the bizarre intimate pain of metal on raw flesh.
I shock myself every time I look in the mirror. I need to look again, and again, to be sure of what I’m seeing—my face, no doubt about it, the one I’ve lived behind all my life, but changed. Changed irreparably, by my choosing. It makes my thoughts skip and stutter.
(Things they don’t tell you: the only way out is through.)
(I am nineteen. The steel-toed boots I love have found a new way to pinch. Despite the slight limp, my stride lengthens when I wear them. In these boots, I walk like I own the street. My feet eat up miles with every step. Pop-punk wails through my earbuds three notches too loud. I go to rub my eyes and remember the makeup half a second too late.)
(I feel like a chimera, a fusion of elements. As if the abstract boy I used to want and the abstract girl I used to want to be came together, tempered each other into something stronger than either of them. I am whole and sufficient—my self ends with my body, my will suffices to keep me standing.)
The tiny silver studs are my signature on my skin, proof this face, this body belongs to me. This is not an empty puppet I control, not a mask I wear. It is me, mine, and I can change it. I am real. I am part of this world, and I can impact it.
I will own my skin and my voice. I will see and speak and act with power, because this life is a gift without strings attached and I will make it mine.
Things they don’t tell you: when the needle goes in, it will feel like victory.