Monday, January 18, 2010


The other day I watched my friend Samantha get a tattoo. She got to talking with the tattoo artist about his clients’ various bad reactions to the tattooing process.

“I had one lady scream so much I had to stop working on her,” he said, guiding what looked like a small electric drill over the lines he had drawn in ink on her arm. His own arms were fully encased with twisting patterns of red and black. “She just kept yelling, ‘Fuck! It hurts so much!’ I was like, sorry, we can’t do this anymore.”

“I know exactly what you mean,” said Samantha. “I’m an acupuncturist.”

“Oh,” he said knowingly. “So you use needles, too.”

“Yeah, and I have a lady just like that,” she said. “Every time she sees me, she says, ‘You are not going to stick a needle right there.’ And I say, ‘Oh yes I am.’ I have to fight her about it every time. It doesn’t seem worth all the trouble.”

“Oh, but I would be like that, too,” said the tattoo artist. “I hate needles.”

Of course we laughed at him.

“I know, it sounds silly,” he said. “My doctor always makes fun of me when I don’t want to get a shot. He says, don’t you work with needles all day long? And I say, yeah, but not hypodermic needles.” He shuddered a little at his own mention of them.

“Yeah, actually, I hate them too,” said Samantha.

“I hate how long they are,” the tattoo artist said. “And what I especially hate is when they put them in sideways and you can see the needle sliding around under your skin.”

It’s a very human thing to be scared of things that puncture our skin. Most of the shots that we get don’t hurt that much—not any more than banging our heads or stubbing our toes, things we don’t live in terror of—but we just don’t like the principle of having things stuck into our flesh, ruining the illusion that our bodies are permanent and coherent manifestations of our souls and not a bunch of malleable matter, just like everything else.

My cat was not scared of shots at all. Whenever she had to get a shot at the vet, I expected her to cry and protest as the needle was inserted, but she would just look slightly nonplussed; her more violent objections were reserved for the rectal thermometer. When I had to give her subcutaneous fluids at the end of her life, I was far more disconcerted by the needle than she was. She would sit calmly once she resigned herself to the fact that I wouldn’t let her move around, which was the only thing bothering her about the procedure.

When I have to get a shot, however, I anticipate it nervously all day. I had to have a tetanus booster a few months ago, and I was sure it was going to be excruciatingly painful. My previous tetanus shot was fourteen years earlier, when I cut my foot on the filthy driveway of my apartment building. The next morning, at the university clinic, the nurse chastised me for not having come in as soon as I cut myself. Then she reopened the wound on my foot and spent five minutes flushing it out with a hypodermic needle the size of a turkey baster.

Then she gave me the tetanus shot. And then she told me that I looked like I was going to faint, and wouldn’t let me leave until I had consumed a packet of saltines and a little can of juice.

Preparing for my recent tetanus shot, I tried to discount this memory—it couldn’t have been as painful as I remember. But when I told a few coworkers that I was going to the hospital for a tetanus shot, they all said, Oh, I hate that one. That one hurts a lot. They rubbed their upper arms and winced as they remembered.

I was pretty shaky by the time I got to the hospital.

“Why are you so bruised?” the nurse asked me as I pulled up my sleeve to expose my arm. I had several purple spots on my upper arm from being grabbed, and a large round bruise on my bicep where someone’s heel had landed as I tried to catch her side kick.

I was tempted to make a joke about my boyfriend beating me, but then I remembered that I was at a hospital. “That’s from kickboxing,” I said.

“Well, be careful,” said the nurse, rubbing alcohol on my upper arm.

“I don’t like needles,” I told him, as he prepared to stick one into my arm, hoping that he would distract me with some conversation.

“Yeah, nobody likes this shot” he said. I felt a prick on my arm, the smallest little pinch.

“That’s it,” he said. “Not so bad, right?”

“Wait,” he added. “Didn’t you just say you’re a kickboxer? And you’re scared of a little needle?” He started laughing.

I did feel pretty stupid, considering the shot didn’t hurt at all. But I feel better knowing that nobody likes shots, not even people who make their living sticking needles into people.

Well, that is, except for the people who like getting things stuck through their bodies: piercing enthusiasts, masochists, those people who get suspended by ropes through their muscles as a hobby. I assume they like having their bodies cut into for the same reason that most people don’t like it, for the same reason people want to go spelunking or climb up the sides of cliffs or fly in airplanes: because you’re really not supposed to.

Thursday, January 7, 2010


When I showed up at my friend Nelson’s house, his sofa was gone.

“It was really torn up,” he said. “I’m going to get a new one.”

He paused for a moment, hesitating to explain further.

“I’m thinking of getting a leather couch,” he said, a wary tone in his voice, as though he was testing my reaction.

Our other friend, Prospero, looked at me expectantly.

“I have a leather couch,” I said. “I like it.”

“What color is it?” Prospero quizzed me, his voice conveying that my answer would carry some significance.

“Black,” I said.

Prospero furrowed his brow. It seemed that I had given the wrong answer. “Hmm,” said Prospero.

“Why?” I asked.

“Prospero thinks that getting a leather couch means you’re a confirmed bachelor,” said Nelson. “Especially if it’s black.” His tone seemed to indicate that I had invalidated this theory.

Nelson and Prospero are both single, childless men in their forties. I’ve been noticing that virtually all of my older male role models seem to be destined for permanent bachelorhood. They travel a lot by themselves, for work and fun. They have set routines that would make it difficult for them to share their lives with someone else. I gather from comments they make that they sometimes date, but they don’t ever talk about who they are dating or bring the people they are dating around to any social events that I am at.

This is the key element defining bachelorhood: the lack of interest in finding a partner who will be integrated into one’s life in a meaningful way. Wikipedia says that one usage of the term refers to “men who do not have and are not actively seeking a spouse or other personal partner” (my emphasis). In other words, the term suggests not only unmarried status, but a commitment to an ongoing life of singlehood.

Many of my older female role models are single as well. But their attitudes about relationships seem to be different than those of my male friends. So far, my female role models all express the goal of finding someone to be in love with, to spend the rest of their lives with, even when this goal is contradicted by their tendency to date men who do not share it. My friend Loretta is very similar to Nelson and Propero: she is in her forties, independent, owns a house, has an active social life, and is usually dating somebody whom most of her friends don’t know very well or at all. She doesn’t get to be a bachelor, though her gender is one of the only things keeping her from being one. The only other difference is that, unlike my male bachelor friends, she claims to be looking for a permanent partner, though I don’t believe it’s a priority for her.

The distinction between bachelors and unmarried women is that the men are seen as mysterious and independent, while the women are a confusing aberration. Men are given permission for their relationships to not invade the core of their identities. People assume that a bachelor is dating somebody, and that it doesn’t really matter who that person is. But a woman who does not integrate her lover into her social life is seen as sexless (she must not have a lover) or as predatory and masculine (think of Samantha on Sex and the City), a loose woman who, as she enters middle age, will have her own gender-specific term applied to her: cougar, a word that gets applied to women who date younger men, even when the age difference is as small as five years, a gap that is not considered noteworthy if the genders are reversed. As a society, we don’t have a ready-made concept for a mature woman who is single, independent, and sexual.

Women don’t get to be bachelors. We have words like “spinster,” “old maid,” “maiden aunt.” Our decision to remain perpetually single is not glamorous but rather pathetic, a sign of our lack of desirability or sexuality. When entertainment magazines call an older male celebrity like George Clooney a “bachelor,” it adds to his mystique, precisely because of the sense of individualism and even selfishness that it suggests. When they refer to an unmarried woman, like Cheryl Crow, she has simply failed in her attempts to stay with the men who she has been publically connected with.

Why did Prospero associate leather couches with bachelors? Presumably because they have many of the qualities favored by bachelors: they are durable, practical, easy to clean, not fussy, not warm or excessively comfortable. Those are, incidentally, all of the reasons that I enjoy my leather couch.

“I guess I am sort of a bachelor,” I said to Prospero.

Or at least I hope to be one. I’m still at an age—my mid-thirties—where unmarried people are still considered to be not yet married, where we have not entered into the post-childbearing era of confirmed bachelorhood yet. I figure I have until forty or so before I am officially an unmarried lady. I’m hoping by then that the meanings of words will have shifted, and I will get to be a bachelor instead of a spinster.