A Track List for Piercing Tongues
by Dorothy Bendel
“Big Mouth Strikes Again” (The Smiths)
He opened his mouth so I could inspect his tongue, thick and squirming like Jabba the Hutt’s. I aimed the needle at the sweet spot: dead-center, between two purple veins in a pond of saliva. I knew to avoid veins like I knew to avoid earnest declarations of love, which only bring trouble. I can’t remember his name. I’ll call him The Mark.
The Mark was willing to pay and my boyfriend insisted I was qualified. She’s done it before. Lots of times before. My boyfriend saw me shove safety pins through my own body but not through someone else’s skin, and he asked me to watch each time he shoved a safety pin through the head of his penis only to take it out a few days later to heal. He repeated the process every few weeks because he liked the way it felt. It hurt, and that was something I could understand.
I should’ve known we were doomed. Sometimes, we sang to each other and stroked each other’s faces like characters in romantic comedies:
“Sweetness, Sweetness I was only joking when I said by rights you should be bludgeoned in your bed.”
Maybe I knew we were doomed but the “why” of why I stayed was too wrapped up in not wanting to be alone in the purgatory of homelessness, and shelters, and friends who seemed to shear down into thinness, millimeter by millimeter, each time I saw them, until one day there was nothing left but rumors. Maybe I just don’t know the answers to “why” because none of us really know any answers but we latch onto good enoughs so we can move on and take out student loans we can’t repay.
“This is not a Love Song” (Public Image Ltd)
Maybe part of the “why” comes down to the things we do for money and being with someone who resides in the same gray area. Television shows and films like to focus on people doing things for money out of greed or some misguided sense of entitlement, which has a certain Shakespearean allure. It’s not seductive to do things for money because you haven’t eaten in three days and, even though you’ve taken in every street kid you know and everyone is working a shit minimum wage job to cover rent in a sketchy apartment block, you’re still worried you might not make it.
“I’m changing my ways where money applies.”
I didn’t have to do things for drugs, mostly because I wasn’t seeking them out and mostly because they appeared anyway. One night, a skinny guy with a skinny beard offered up a few tabs of LSD and my boyfriend readily accepted when he realized it was free because, as the stranger said: It’s all part of living in an artistic community.
If an artistic life means knowing when the guy at Dunkin’ Donuts brings the day’s leftovers out to the bin so me and my roommates could have something to eat that day, then I was a prodigy. If being artistic is coaxing my tripping boyfriend out of our neighbor’s unlocked car – a neighbor I’d never met who screamed over the balcony What the hell are you doing in my car? – and I somehow managed to not get arrested or pummeled, then I was the goddam Michelangelo of the South.
“Venus in Furs” (Velvet Underground)
The Mark just assumed I knew what I was doing because I had rings hanging out of my lip, ears, nose, and eyebrow. What he didn’t know was, aside from a septum piercing, which seemed one emergency room visit too far, I merely skewered my own flesh with safety pins rather than professional piercing needles, everlasting scars be damned.
Give me the scars, I thought, what does it matter if people see. Every stab went well aside from a nipple piercing, which “walked through” in a few days, but I didn’t mind. Those days, I didn’t feel much at all.
“I am tired, I am weary
I could sleep for a thousand years”
“Steppin’ Stone” (Minor Threat)
I could feel the soft spasms of hunger in my belly as he opened wide like a creature about to unhinge its jaw and swallow me whole. Hunger tempted me to cross line after line but I couldn’t bring myself to put someone else in danger, even if danger was all I knew. That’s why I studied up before plunging the needle through The Mark’s dense tongue and why I asked an experienced friend to watch and warn me if it looked like I was about to royally fuck up. Before I sank the thin, sharp metal through his tongue, I confessed that it was my first time doing so. He asked me to do it anyway. I took a thousand times more care with a stranger than I did with my own body. His body was not mine to toy with.
The Mark came back a few days later. The piercing had healed quickly and perfectly. He was over the moon, clicking the steel bar against his teeth with irritating joy, thanking me over and over. He said he would recommend me to friends. Please don’t, I said. I’m retired.
Sometimes I hear a song that brings me back to a place where there aren’t any answers but the questions seem clearer. Some songs are moments jutting out from the past and skewering the path ahead, puncturing the image of another self.
Year later, when a dermatologist asked about the small scar under my lip from a bored-in-a-bedroom piercing, I waved it off as some silly, youthful mistake. I used the fewest syllables possible to get my point across, easily digestible words employed when people want an explanation but they don’t want the truth.
“When I first met you girl you didn’t have no shoes
Now you’re walking ’round like you’re front page news”
I shrugged my shoulders like it was all a mystery to me too, beyond any understanding and far enough away from the “me” now to remember. Even as I still felt the hot pressure under my skin reminding me of who I’ll always be.