THERE IS A SAYING IN MY HOUSEHOLD. Imagine it scrawled in cursive on the family coat of arms or, more appropriately, shouted down the long hallway of a narrow duplex. It goes like this:
“Don’t get your balls in an uproar.”
This is a sentence that carries weight. It can buy time when you’re in a rush, or it can defuse a heated argument. The pizza guy rings the doorbell and your dad is yelling for cash? “I’ll be there in a second. Don’t get your balls in an uproar.” The dog hasn’t been out to pee in six hours? “Hold on, girl—don’t get your balls in an uproar.” It can also serve as a helpful piece of advice—a mantra to repeat and rehearse until it burrows deep and makes its home in the corners of the mind. It is something I find myself wishing I’d remembered as I sit, with legs spread wide, in the ER of Montreal’s Jewish General Hospital. Don’t get your balls in an uproar, I repeat to myself. Too late.
The first hint that something was wrong came earlier that afternoon: a slight ache in my nethers. It was late August, the limbo week between the end of my warehouse job and the start of the fall semester. I’d already watched half a season of Adventure Time from the sofa and I took my watch beeping 2 PM as an opportunity to shift my weight and avoid developing a case of bedsores. You deserve a medal, I thought as I contorted to a new position, but what I said aloud was “Ow.”
This feeling wasn’t the gong-like resonance of getting slapped in the crotch on the schoolyard. Nor was it the embodied shame of accidentally sitting down on your own testes. With an empiric history of groin-related misadventures behind me, I knew one thing for certain: this wasn’t normal. The pain was sharper, localized. It felt meaningful. Enough to warrant pausing the TV to go to the downstairs bathroom and perform a more detailed check. With every stride came another ache, a feeling that got worse as my steady, concerned pace lent momentum to each swing. I forced myself to keep calm before kicking open the bathroom door, sitting down on the toilet and letting it all hang out. The results?
“What is that?”
I gently massaged myself with my fingers, trying to feel around the shape of my mysterious anatomy like a detective looking for clues. What I found was a thing. Round-ish and pronounced, it felt like the swelling of a tangled garden hose. Or a pea. It was on the top—or maybe it was on the bottom. I can’t be sure. Perception is everything when your gonads float around like astronauts in orbit. I nearly gave myself vertigo as I started to question whether I actually knew anything about my own body.
You should have been checking every day, cried my testicles. Now we’re going to explode. How could you let this happen?
THIS IS NOT THE FIRST TIME I’ve slipped into a worry spiral. I have, with practice, developed a knack for talking myself through panic and letting anxiety run its course. And yet, after a solid ten minutes of doomsday calculation and exploratory playing on that August day, I knew that I had to bite the bullet and do something that I rarely ever do: I had to call my mother and tell her about my balls.
“Uh, I think something is really, really wrong,” I started. My mother listened, concerned, but she didn’t panic. Evidently, that was my job. While I sputtered lightning-round nonsense from half-remembered anatomy lessons, she replied in calm, measured tones. Her words asked me to describe exactly what I was feeling, but the subtext I chose to read was more like, You were bound to do this to yourself sooner or later—now where do we go from here? Less than ten minutes later, she was in front of the house, ready to drive me to the ER.
There is something about hospital emergency rooms that invites self-reflection. It could be the seven-hour wait time, or the Christmas songs playing in late summer. Maybe it’s just the experience of sharing a space with a group of peers who are united by the bonds of misery and discomfort—the religious lady with the swollen ankle, the grimacing couple in sweatpants. Whatever the reason, this limbo appears designed to trigger the quantum assessment of one’s own past, present and future. I try to read Questlove’s memoir, but instead become distracted by words floating through my mind. My feet, tapping with the ferocity of a heavy metal drummer with two kick pedals and no sense of rhythm, create a performance of anxious beat poetry.
“Is it torsion?” Tap-tap-tappity-tap. “Is it cancer?” Tappity-tap-tap. “Is this going to end up like TLC’s The Man with the 132-Pound Scrotum?” Tap-tap-tap. “Have I wasted my life watching TLC?” Tap.
“Could I have been a better person?”
The answer to all of the above is yes. And, the voice in my head says, I must deserve it.
I am finally brought into a tiny all-purpose examination room, where I am instructed to take off my clothes before the doctor arrives. Exhausted both physically and mentally, I have what can only be described as an out-of-body experience. I watch from a distance as I strip to my underpants. It’s not a pretty sight, even with the ensuing intimacy of a full pat-down from the resident urologist. She brushes a strand of blond hair away from her glasses as she massages my testes like a market patron choosing an avocado. I find grim satisfaction in being told that she doesn’t know what the problem is. “You’re going to have to come in tomorrow morning for an ultrasound,” she says. That gives me pause. Ultrasound. It’s cold, futuristic, bleak. I like it.
ULTRASOUND. The word rolls around in my head later that night as I draw imaginary technical manuals. I can see the electric-blue lights that surely line its handle; the gothic spikes that jut out from the tip like rejected concept art from Aliens. They spin, whirring. I don’t know what it’s supposed to do, but it feels right. I don’t sleep.
There is a painting on the ceiling of the ultrasound room. It’s a pastoral dawn landscape—a sparkling lake spread out before a cozy cabin occupied by a loving family, a tiny puff of smoke rising up from the fireplace within. Something to focus the mind as two more doctors squirt cold conductive gel all over my naked, exposed body. I stare at the picture. Serenity and peace. The wonders of nature. Happy little trees. Those people are going to fuck this all up, I think, as I do what I am told and pull my penis up toward my belly button to make room for what looks like a bar code scanner.
The doctors discuss amongst themselves what they see on-screen. They sound confused—a development I find reassuring. It doesn’t look good for me; everything is going according to plan. “Every epididymis looks different,” says the attractive female doctor to the equally-attractive male doctor. “Like a snowflake,” I add, helpfully. No one is amused.
TWO HOURS LATER, I sit on a bed in a tiny room in the ER. It’s smaller and barer than the ones I’ve been in so far. There are no toys around, only an x-ray light box. This has to be the climax. I wipe my sweaty palms on my shorts and shift to reposition the hanging culmination of my sins. I look at the blank light box. Any moment now, someone is going to walk in, clip something to that glowing board and tell me that I am going to die. I turn on my phone, hoping to capture an x-ray dick pic. I haven’t tweeted in a while.
The door opens and a doctor enters. He is a new doctor. He is also the least attractive one that I have seen so far. The news must really be terrible; Hollywood is gone and they’ve busted out the hatchet man. Music doesn’t swell and time doesn’t slow to let me brace myself for the bad news that must surely be coming.
“Everything’s fine,” he says. “Here’s your hospital card.”
Are you sure? The words stick in my throat. Instead, I ask if there’s any explanation for what I’m feeling. “No,” he shrugs. “Ultrasound’s clean. Maybe it’s muscular? Try icing it when you get home.” And, just like that, he’s gone. Presumably off to tell someone else to go sit on some ice.
I wasn’t happy. Sure, I was relieved. But I wasn’t satisfied. I’d prepared myself for the apocalypse but things went disastrously well. What happened to torsion? Cancer? Some sort of undiscovered syndrome that would put my name in the history books and become my legacy? I got nothing. I wanted some kind of validation. As a chronic worrier, I needed my concern to finally be justified. A lifetime of questionable karma, concentrated in my crotch. It would have made sense. It would have been meaningful.
But it wasn’t. I was just a man alone on a hospital bed with scrotum in hand, and seven choice words echoing through my head.