The Penis Papers

Men talk intimately, humorously and with great honesty about their most private part.

Published May 13, 2003 7:08PM (EDT)

We thought it was time for a series on men and their penises. Penises are often overlooked, underdiscussed and taken for granted unless they're in use. Many men are hesitant to speak about their penises except in the crudest, or most perfunctory, ways.

Novelist and screenwriter Terence Clarke has broken through these barriers and is in the process of interviewing more than 200 men -- from a black limo driver to an underemployed Irish poet, and even a man who is becoming a woman.

The pieces running this week are selections from an upcoming book called "Cleopatra's Needle: A Report From the Heart and Soul of Men's Last Taboo." The idea for the project came about when Clarke and editor/publisher Alan Rinzler were talking about Eve Ensler's "Vagina Monologues" and realized that there was no comparable work on men. Clarke says, "Men keep quiet about their penises but underneath all that silence is an authentic universal preoccupation with precisely what is never mentioned."

All names have been changed to protect the privacy of the penises.

Horacio, my pretty flower

Pedro is an intake clerk for the California Department of Motor Vehicles. He's 31 years old, a small man, very dark-skinned, who wears tinted eyeglasses and a suit and tie every day to work. He does not care for the sloppiness of the contemporary workplace.

No, I don't like the way people seem not to care about themselves anymore. The way they dress at work, they look like bums! My grandfather wouldn't have stood for it, and I feel the same way. So I try to look sharp every day at work. I remember him, although he was very old when I was a kid here in San Jose. My grandmother told me a lot about him. He was from Guadalajara, a furniture salesman. They met in Guadalajara and, you know, in the early 20s he didn't just go out with my grandmother. You didn't do that. He'd ask her to go for a walk on the ramblas on Sunday afternoon, and her mother'd go with them. Or he'd come over for a visit some evening, and they'd sit in the parlor while her mother sat in the living room, which was right next to the parlor, knitting or something but really just watching them. No touch. No making out. None of that.

But, you know, my grandmother, she loved that man! She always told me how beautiful he was, and formal. How he treated her like a lady, a woman! Which meant that he treated her in a manly way, brought her flowers, respected her wishes and always, always greeted her mother and father with real feeling, real respect.

So when I'm at work, I try to be the same way. And I'm that way with my wife, too. She even calls me "Horacio" sometimes, which was my grandfather's name. But, I mean, you know, you asked me about my penis? My wife calls it "mi linda flor," my pretty flower. I like that. But I like it just as much when she calls it "Horacio."

"Please take me to bed"

Clifford is a marketing executive in San Francisco in his late 50s. He was married for 23 years and has one adult son. He is a fallen-away Catholic, an avid reader of South American novels, and loves his social life.

When I was a little boy, my father instructed me to keep my arms and hands outside the covers when I slept. When he tucked me in, he would arrange the blanket and sheet over me, with my Lone Ranger pajama arms resting above the blanket, my hands folded together over my stomach.

"Keep them that way, Cliffie," he would smile, tousling my hair before moving toward the light switch. "And sleep tight!" I didn't succeed. His admonitions reminded me of the similar instructions he gave on those occasions on which I had to wear a coat and tie somewhere -- Christmas mass, Easter service, a funeral -- and I felt similarly restricted, similarly tightened.

For me, one of the lovely pleasures of sleep has always been to become immersed in the sheets and blankets and to allow their dreamy warmth to steal over me like a warm fog, quickly. So as soon as my father left the bedroom, I'd bring my hands beneath the blankets, roll over on my side and go to sleep.

I did not do what he was worried I would do, which was to masturbate. I didn't question why he wished me to be so formal in my sleeping. But the answer became very clear, like lightning, one remarkable night when I was 17 and a freshman at the University of California, alone in bed with a sudden erection. I took it in hand and, well, the rest is history!

For me, onanism came late in life. By 17, most men have become expert in the practice. So I was a late bloomer. But once I did discover it, I recalled my father's loving -- and now suddenly failed -- advice. I had never asked him about it. I never spoke to my father about sex in any way. My mother was the source of all such information as, later, friends were and, much later, some generous, kindhearted and barely contained women. After my discovery in Berkeley, I knew why he had been so careful.

But now, given the pleasure I had found, I wondered why he had cared about it so negatively. Before then, I had thought of my penis as an odd sort of tube to have flopping around before me. What god would have invented that? It was convenient in that toilets were perfectly situated to receive the liquid that periodically ran from it. But what was the point of it otherwise? There were moments, of course, when it got big, and I knew why it got big. (My mother had explained it to me.) But I really didn't understand the consequences of its getting big -- that is, the immediate consequences and the immediate solutions.

I had this vague understanding that lovemaking -- which at the time I really didn't understand -- was intended for making babies. I had been told so by Jesuit priests during Catholic Church retreats in junior high school, and as far as they were concerned that was the only thing for which lovemaking was intended. But the priests had said this in a tone of voice that implied that, in the case of boys, the penis could be put to other quite dastardly purposes as well. Even though they didn't describe masturbation or fucking or the well-intended, perfumed caress. None of that.

I almost discovered one of those purposes when I was 16 and making out on the beach in front of my high school girlfriend's house (I'll call her Mary Jo) on the Balboa Peninsula of Newport Beach, Calif. I had just learned how to make out, and Mary Jo was really enjoying what we were doing. I wasn't feeling her up or anything, although I had been told how to do it by some friends of mine. As a good Catholic boy, I knew that feeling Mary Jo up would be a sin. So we were just kissing. But my penis was very taut, very strained against the jockey underpants I was wearing. I occasionally had to adjust it so that it could avoid rubbing against the zipper of my pants. The underpants provided some protection against the zipper, but not much.

Mary Jo whispered into my ear, "Oh Cliffie, please, please take me to bed."

I stood up and helped her to her feet. She lived with her parents and sister in a second-story flat that looked out on the beach. None of them was home that evening, and I escorted Mary Jo up the stairs and into the apartment. Ever the gentleman, I tucked her into her bed, kissed her good night, and left, thinking I had obliged her every wish.

Mary Jo's affection for me waned after that. She soon started going out with the high school quarterback. But as I drove home that night, I noticed the transformation that my penis had undergone. All for Mary Jo. For one, it was messy with pre-ejaculate liquid and clotted pubic hair. It felt quite sensitive to the touch, rubbed raw here and there by its confrontation with my underpants and zipper. Also I had a severe case of what my friends called "lover's nuts," the dull, even agonizing ache that takes over your scrotum sack when you've been very excited but have not had a proper orgasm. I didn't know what a proper orgasm was.

When I got up the next morning, the lover's nuts had subsided. I kept from my parents what Mary Jo and I had been doing on the beach, and what she had said to me in so frenzied a tone of voice. But I marveled in private at the transformations my penis had been through. Radical size shifts. The surface of its skin, changed from loose to taut to slick to sticky. Its color, now in places quite red, as though it had been sunburned. It had had a personality when Mary Jo and I were together. It had sought release. It had been disappointed. It had grumbled in pain. It had complained. But -- it had not succumbed to the ecstatic purpose to which it had been tempted. I was not to understand that purpose -- and all the subsequent others -- until I got to Berkeley and beat off that night.

Now, after long marriage, a grown son, divorce and 10 years of being single again and being taught, again, by even more gracious women, I see how full a life a penis can have. I mean, it now delivers itself of opinions. It rests, content that it need not bestir itself right this minute, but that it surely could if it wanted to. It is calm, assured, maybe a little too settled and self-congratulatory. It has found capabilities for subtlety of action, the giving of pleasure, thrilling moments of sudden change, surrender and release that, lying on the beach with Mary Jo, I would not have even possibly imagined.

I only wish that my father were still alive, so that I could tell him.

I always loved me mickey

Liam is a poet from County Galway in the west of Ireland who now lives in New York City. He is 35 years old. He dresses poorly, in jeans, cowboy boots and secondhand shirts. He has very little money, because he insists he will be a poet and nothing else. His hair is frequently dirty. He refuses to work for a living, and his income comes from his writing and from welfare.

Well, you know that, despite the common myth about Catholics, we don't fuck much in Ireland. But I'm ever vigilant and I always loved me mickey. I almost hate to use the term because it sounds so disrespectful. I really feel that he's my friend, and I don't want to use him for bad purposes. I care a lot for my mother and sisters and, you know, the truth is I love myself. So I wasn't going to allow my penis to be some kind of warrior that I'd use to defeat women. I don't view women as though they're the English.

So I was reading the Chilean Pablo Neruda the other day, one of his "One Hundred Love Sonnets." There's a relationship, you know, a famous one, between the Spanish and the Irish. Irish soldiers were forever fighting for the Spanish against the English. Regiments of them! I think there's a political reason there. As they say, "England's troubles are Ireland's gain." But I also have this vision of the poor surviving sailors of the Spanish Armada coming ashore in the north of Ireland in 1588, cold and smothered with seawater and Triton's cold weeds, dying, and the first thing they see is a group of Irish girls standing on the beach, barefoot, smiling, surprised by these handsome dark men floating on the waves, red-haired girls and gorgeous, you know. Can you blame the Spanish for feeling saved?

Anyway, I was reading Pablo Neruda. And he has this poem, it's No. 12 in that book of sonnets. He's writing the poem to his wife Matilde. All of them are written to this woman, and, Jesus, he must have loved her. To distraction, I mean, because few women have been written about the way Neruda writes about her. He calls her a "meaty apple"! He calls her a "hot moon." And then he says: "I cover over your small infinities, kiss by kiss, your edges, your rivers, your diminutive villages, and the genital fire, transformed to a delicacy, runs up the narrow lanes of the blood until it spills itself ... a carnation nocturne flower, until it is and is nothing, save a glimmer in the shadow."

Now what's that? That's his mickey he's talking about. And he's coming! Isn't he? Fire and delicacy! Lord help us. "The narrow lanes of the blood ..." Can you imagine anything as beautiful as that? His penis is a deliverer! It brings her such a gift! A flower! A glimmer! A shadow! Sure you'd have to go a long way to find a mickey as glorious as that.

Tomorrow: A grand lover of women

By Terence Clarke

Terence Clarke is a novelist and screenwriter in San Francisco.

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