Nothing prepares you for it. Sure, I had a girlfriend with a curious finger. Every grad from a mediocre college has. And I’m aware that by the time men turn 50, it’s a good idea to let the man your mother-in-law wished her daughter would’ve married put a couple fingers in your pleasegodno. Thing is, I’m not 50. And that part of my anatomy has run a dependable export business its entire life. It has steadfastly ignored the import market.
I noticed it about a year ago. It wasn’t much. Just a trace of blood. It was as if my sphincter had begun manscaping on its own and was experiencing minor technical difficulties with its miraculous endeavor. I immediately did what most men in this situation would do. I researched potential trades in my fantasy football league. After about an hour, I Googled “anal bleeding.”
The feedback from internet experts was unsettling.
“Call the doctor instantly!”
“Never ignore anal bleeding!”
They sounded so certain and authoritative on the chat board. I realize every human body is different. Maybe their duff was uniquely unlike my own. But, really, there can be only so many reasons backsides bleed.
I did what any normal man would do after reading all this.I comforted myself in a thick blanket of denial for a year. The issue showed up every few months, like the shady character in a movie whose only role is to foreshadow tragic, explosive death. I’d look at it and think, Hey, it wasn’t there yesterday. And it’ll probably be gone tomorrow. Until it starts a constant leak like that crappy faucet my wife told me not to buy and then later told me that she told me not to buy… well, let’s not rock the boat.
Finally, experiencing a rare moment of self-awareness during a routine checkup, I broach the subject with my physician.
“Blood?” he asks.
“Yeah, I mean just a touch,” I assure him. “But I did read from a few different sources that… well, y’know… I might be screwed.”
“At your age, it’s probably nothing. But I’m going to schedule you for a Flex Sig just to be sure.”
I picture Sigmund Freud straining to form a bicep. Sadly, there’s nothing metaphorical about two feet of camera hose up your rear—which is how my physician explains flexible sigmoidoscopy before I drift into that blissful state of terror known as wakeful unconsciousness. The doctor’s lips are moving, but no noise. The human mind is equipped with a very powerful mute button, which works on every inconvenient conversation except ones with spouses.
I’d yet to develop a split personality—some psychological EMT who comes out to deal with horrific life occurrences, saving the main “me” from developing a facial twitch or permanent panic eyes. If Crisis Troy was growing in me, this moment is ripe for his coming-out party. I’d heard horror stories from my fifty-year-old uncles who’d had their asses probed.
“Don’t worry,” the doctor assures me, “It’s not a full colonoscopy.”
Oh, I think. Well. That’s good. Apparently during a full colonoscopy, Discovery Channel parks a double-wide in your rectum to shoot on location for a few weeks. And what kind of consolation is that? It’s a Hippocratic mistake to tell patients one atrocious procedure is “no worry” simply because more atrocious procedures exist. Like, “Yeah, it’s cancer. But, don’t worry. Your eyeballs haven’t grown teeth and started eating their way through your brain.”
Feeling greatly uncomforted, I’m directed into the administrative offices. This is where paperwork meets holy fuck I hate my job. In a tight line of cubicles sit the administrators—part stenographers for the medical staff, part schwag dispensers for the pharmaceutical industry. (You want a Viagra ballpoint pen? Ooh, nice Cymbalta sticky note. Xanax stress ball—I thought those were myths. Nice collection.)
The hospital clerk is very professional, and round as a Physioball. I have never encountered a hospital clerk that looks yoga-bodied or freshly wheat-grassed. Nearly all of them appear to believe Cheetos are an acceptable source of breakfast dairy. In fact, I often see a big group of them smoking outside the hospital near Downtown San Diego. Nothing unnerves me more. It makes me think they’re privy to a darker truth about the randomness of disease and health. Maybe everyday they see twenty-five-year-old Jack LeLanes contract horrible penile ebola so they figure What the hell, I’ll stuff the cigarette in the Twinkie.
The clerk hands me a highlighted shopping list. She reads each item aloud: “A bottle of Magnesium Citrate, two tablets of Dulcolax, two enema kits.”
No apology. No Kleenex. No empathetic consideration of my grossly misplaced homophobia.
Dulcolax sounds pretty self-explanatory. Anything with “lax” in its name is sure to act like a traffic cop and disperse any laggardly looky-loos in my colon. Never heard of magnesium citrate. Sounds like something skinny white women buy at holistic grocery stores thinking it will heal their intestinal fauna and make the voices go away.
I’ll have two weeks to prepare. So I do what any normal American male would do. I pretend it isn’t really happening for one week and six and three-quarter days.
Late on Flex Eve, I grab the world’s worst shopping list and make the long, sad drive to the grocery store.What aisle for enema kits? Pharmaceuticals? Cleaning supplies? A dark aisle with strobe lights with a bouncer who demands a cover charge? I don’t even know what the kits look like. In my mind, they’ll resemble one of those fire-stoking contraptions from the 1930s—a large device with an accordion-like fan and a three-foot brass proboscis. The sort of thing that could split me like a nut.
I ask a clerk. Working the late shift, his face is an acne farm. He’s far beyond his teenage years, so I assume he knows how to cook recreational drugs in bathtubs.
“Yeah, think I know where those are,” replies meth-capable grocery guy. Without ceremony nor suspicion, he leads me to two small boxes on a shelf.
“That’s it?” I ask with an awkward chuckle of relief.
“Think so,” he shrugs, and walks off.
Hell, I think. I could probably stick seven or eight of them up my ass. No sweat.
Now, the only thirty-five-year-old males who shop for enema kits are gay men with hot dates and excellent hygiene. But I don’t care. I don’t have time to consider rumors surrounding the romantic aspirations of my anus. More pressing is the fact that it’s scheduled to host a flash flood and Lewis & Clark come morning.
An enema kit is a simple squeeze bottle, like the ones football coaches squirt into the mouths of players during timeouts. Only, there’s a pointy plastic nozzle that has a very apparent, sinister function. In the bottle is a clear liquid—most likely a simple saline solution, possibly the collected tears of heterosexual men.
The next morning in the bathroom, I pull the first one from its box. I give it a lame pickup line to lighten the situation, then feel sorry for myself for needing to do that. I get to business.
For ten minutes, I lay naked and alone on my bathroom floor, enacting this supposedly benevolent violence upon myself. My cheek smooshed against the cold tile, I try to think of Costa Rica, favorite infomercials, my spirit animal. Instead, the AV system in my head begins screening the movie Deliverance and nature documentaries where the alpha male violently has his way with the herd.
Thankfully, my mental trauma as an uptight heterosexual man turns out to be the most painful thing about the experience. The physical discomfort isn’t much to sneeze at. It’s like I imagine “just the tip” feels when women decide to play that game thinking it won’t lead to “just the whole thing.”
I am now the proud owner of America’s cleanest colon. While not in pain, I’m aware of a physical sensation in my butt that wasn’t there twenty minutes ago. It feels like my colon is whispering a secret. I gingerly pile into my pickup truck and slowly, dreadfully drive to my neighborhood gastrointestinal ward.
The G.I. waiting room resembles a failed mixer at the Elks Lodge. Nice old ladies look like they’ve spent the last decade crocheting thoughtful, unwanted gifts for family members. Middle-aged men bear grim expressions, resigned to the fact that this goddamn place is penance for a life of rib eyes and cut-rate cigars.
I am by far the springiest chicken. There is no Esquire or Rolling Stone among the reading material. Just magazines dedicated to golf, boating, island vacations, fishing trips—all advertising big-ticket items designed to separate old people from their life savings before they die.
I am immediately very popular. The white-hairs stare and smile motherly. Maybe they think I found an old box of action figures and unwisely decided to get creative. Or they’re wondering what Richard Gere is up to these days. I grab a golf magazine and attempt to read, but it’s tough to care about the Vardon overlap grip when you’re about to get entered from behind for the first time in your life.
“TROY JOHNSON?!” a nurse bellowed into the waiting room.
JESUS CH…. WHAT THE… SHHHHHHHHHLADYSHHHH! I scream loudly inside my head. Patients in a place like this should be allowed to use fake names, just like bachelors who do coke and hookers in Vegas. It would be easier to think of the regulars telling their poker buddies later about “a young fella named Ron Burgundy in the butt ward today.”
Once inside, the nurse instructs me to disrobe and put on a smock. I do as I’m told, immediately learning the importance of footwear during hospital visitation. Smocks only hang to knee level. So it was a poor day to wear my half-boots. I considered them European and chic. “Nope. Lady shoes,” said friends.
The fifty-something nurse who takes my vitals is kind and round—the sort who sweetly implores patients to quit smoking then goes home to a dinner plate of Fritos.
“Now, do you understand the procedure?” she asks.
Yes, I think to myself. Some man sticks two feet of tubing up my ass while some older man masturbates in the general vicinity. The whole ordeal is shot in high-def and added to an internet pay site along with some bondage and horse porn.
“It’s not painful,” she assures me. “But in order to get a good view, the doctor has to blow air up there to inflate your intestines. It will feel like a lot of pressure. It’ll feel like you have to evacuate.”
Evacuate. You know you’re in the presence of medical professionals when they compare your bowel movements to an office building emergency. As if one of my stools pushing over smaller, feebler stools on its way down a fiery colon.
In the operating room are two nurses in their twenties, male and female.
These are the rookies assigned to me? Doesn’t this flex sig require a real doctor? On the bright side, maybe it’s such a minor procedure that any intern with a C-average could legally stick tubing up a man? After all, I’d done horrible things to my ass—whiskey binges, carne asada cheese fries, Thai food. It is a resilient orifice. But I feel strongly my ass deserves a real doctor.
The female nurse points to a TV hanging in the corner. “Doctor Rosen will be able to see everything that’s going on in there on that screen,” she explains. As a latch-key kid, I’m thrilled this will be televised. Maybe I’ll see that massive wad of gum other kids swore would stay in my stomach until I died. Or a small toy. I can’t recall how many things I stuck up there as a kid.
Finally, Dr. Rosen enters with a polite and workmanlike salutation. My flex sig is now a social gathering—a reminder that America is a melting pot of 300 million plaintiffs and defendants. With three witnesses, no freshly violated and vengeful man could claim the doctor performed the procedure with a webcam strapped to his penis.
Dr. Rosen’s face has been transformed into a permanent scowl. I don’t blame him. I might, too, if my life became an assembly line of trembling rectums. Plus, most Flex Sigs probably aren’t even exciting. Very few wedged household appliances, more thirty-something hypochondriacs who can’t tell a hemorrhoid from swine flu.
I nervously crack jokes they’ve heard before. To shut me up, Dr. Rosen begins to rub Vaseline on his fingers. Few products have been invented with such good intentions and become such an omen of uh-oh. Airbrushed passenger vans, maybe. Priests robes.
Dr. Rosen then shows me his apparatus. The good news is that it’s thinner than a pinky finger and looks pliable. The bad news was is it’s a dozen times as long. If you’ve ever had a bad clog in your shower drain and employed the “snake” device—it’s very similar.
“OK, if you’re ready,” he says. I turn on my side and face the TV, both scared out of my gourd and kind of pumped. My insides are a secret world I’ve only heard or read about. The nurse intervenes. “Troy, I want you to close your eyes just until we get the camera where we need it. I want you to take three deep breaths. Then you can watch it on TV.”
What’s this bullshit? I’m co-paying to have my backside plundered and I can’t watch the initial crossing? What if Jesus is on the other side?
I do as she says. Never scorn a woman, particularly if she’s co-piloting the maiden voyage into your anus.
I try to relax, but that’s not really at all in anyway possible. My asshole just fakes it—like the clenched smile you give to someone you secretly despise.
I wonder if I’ll ever be the same. I’ve heard about the prostate and how it feels good when stimulated. What if Dr. Rosen stimulates it and from that point on my life becomes one long pursuit of appeasing the newfound G-spot in my butt? Will I finally understand the appeal of Oprah and lose my ability to parallel park?
I mean, this is it. The moment. The no-going-back. I hold my breath and…
It slips right in, no pain at all. Have I been getting sodomized in my sleep? Is my wife that kinky? Who cares! This is easy! Oh, god, thank you god! I can’t believe I was such a wuss! I could do this every day for breakfast! I can’t believe—
CLICK. The doctor flips a switch.
Oh what the…
The camera begins to blow air into my intestines.
Oh god this isn’t… oh please no…
On the TV screen, the glistening walls of my colon puff outwards like a parachute. The pressure is… remarkable. It doesn’t feel like I need to evacuate. It feels like I lost a fight with a gardener and he shoved a leaf blower up my ass.
I am in serious “discomfort” (hospitals don’t call it “pain,” but rather “discomfort,” as if your shoes are just a little tight). Still, I manage to watch my insides on TV. It looks like the Raiders of the Lost Ark in there, only without the cobwebs or angry natives. I’m struck by how good-looking my colon is. It’s glossy and smooth and pink and full of life. It looks very much like the insides of my cheeks, as if I could just start sitting on cocktails instead of drinking them.
Dr. Rosen gives a sparse play-by-play as the camera spelunks its way through my glistening pink catacombs. I imagine Mike Rowe from Dirty Jobs wearing a haz-mat suit, chummily and apprehensively stomping through my guts.
The camera moves slowly, scans with its tiny little lamp from side to side, up and down. We are, I presume, looking for bogies, awful growths, gaping holes in my plumbing.
I feel like I’m watching the victim in a horror movie walk down a deserted, dimly lit hallway. Any minute now we’re going to come across a terrible, ferocious gremlin ripping at my intestinal walls like that episode of Twilight Zone. I’m nervously waiting for Dr. Rosen to pause the camera, make some sort of consolatory exhale, explain to me that any sky diving or climbing of Mt. Everest should probably be done in the next week.
This horrible anticipation continues all the way up to what he refers to as “the first bend in the road.” There he stops the camera.
Here it is, I think. The awful outcome of all those years of Pale Ales and Marlboros must be here. He must see it. I can’t see a thing out of the normal, but he knows.
“OK, that’s as far as we’re going,” he says. “So far, so good. But I’m going to make one more pass on the way out to make sure I didn’t miss anything.”
He begins to back his leaf blower out of my ass. On the second pass, we spot no action figures, no wad of gum, no massive tumor with its own hair and teeth. I exhale a bucket of anxiety during the grand finale, when the camera returns to the shadowy topography of my butt crack.
“Looks like you’re all fine,” he announces. “Nothing I can see that would be any concern.”
I breathe normal for the first time in the last week.
The nurses help me off the bed and to the hall. I slowly waddle down the fluorescent hallway in my girlish half-boots. I walk exactly as you imagine a man would walk after having his first violatory rectal experience. Every step I take threatens to pop the over-inflated balloon that is my gut. I am a plastic bottle of soda on an airplane. I am canned food with botulism. I am pressed and stretched and near explosion.
It takes a good three hours until I feel normal again. Strangely, I have pain in my shoulders. Did so much air enter my body cavity that it’s trying to get out my chimney? That night, I fall asleep with a little discomfort inside me. But I do not hum Barbara Streisand and I won’t feel a thing come morning.
A week later, I meet with my general physician to discuss the results. He reaffirms that my sphincter is A-OK.
“I don’t want to disparage Dr. Rosen,” I tell him. “I’m sure he’s a good doctor. But was his hand shaking?”
“Oh,” says my doctor, a little sad. “Yeah, his hand does that.” His face expresses a sort of professional empathy, as if talking about a former heart surgeon who’d been banished to the butt ward when old age gave him tremors.
Dr. Rosen had enacted an unspeakable act of professional violence upon me. And yet now our encounter was no longer about me. I wanted to find him and thank him, assure him he’d done a good job. That I had been comfortable and even entertained by the video. I might even tip him handsomely, on account of his shaking. Surely, such a thing must cost extra.