Pierced And Confused

Last weekend, I got my navel pierced. I went with my friend Jill, while her boyfriend Charlie took the kids to see an IMAX movie.It didn't hurt as much as I expected, but my heart still raced with that expectant, heady feeling you get on a rundown amusement-park ride -- excited by the adventure, then suddenly aware of the real potential for physical injury in the whole affair.We spent a long time picking out beads for the tiny silver hoops soon to be strung through our midsections, avoiding the stainless-steel needle, and the beckoning stance of our omni-perforated piercer, Rod, as long as we could. Back behind the white curtain, Jill laid down on the doctor's table and Rod swabbed and marked her with quick expert motions. I sat by her side, our hands intertwined as in preparation for childbirth or a colostomy.It was over in a flash. I traded places with a vaguely unsteady Jill and bared my midriff to Rod. As he dabbed iodine on my stomach, I noticed that the metal caps on his front incisors had smiley faces engraved into them. Rod, by contrast, did not seem to smile much -- at least not until we stood clutching each other, about to exit our piercing stall, and he got to tell us about infections.Afterwards, we wandered around aimlessly, looking for the car, not finding it. We held each other up as we walked, holding on for support like lovers on Ecstasy. We agreed that we couldn't have gone with a boy, that such an intimate, bejewelifying moment called for girl solidarity -- for the chance to be scared and nauseous, to giggle and have clammy hands, and not feel self-conscious for inflicting all of the above on ourselves (and paying for the privilege).Back at the aquarium, the girls ran up to meet us, pulling at our t-shirts, demanding a look. "Eeeww," they echoed. "I can't believe you did that. That's gross." Soon they piled into Charlie's white Taurus wagon. The sitter was scheduled for 7 p.m., and they still had pizza and videos to secure for the kids. I waved to the tiny faces peering at me out of the rear window until they disappeared from view, then turned to head the few short blocks home.I don't have kids. Or a boyfriend. I have a dog -- my solace, my soulmate, and, I should add, my only successful long-term relationship.I stepped gingerly into my apartment. My whole body had grown stiff and I had a strong urge to press a large band-aid across my torso. "No licking, Sophie," I solemnly instructed my four-legged companion in the rarely used tone which indicates that I mean it. This was one of Rod's commandments. That, and "no fluids." This last one he imparted with particular emphasis, his timing perfectly anticipating Jill's parroting response."No fluids?""No. None. Think of it as an open wound," he replied, flashing a metallic grin that caught the fluorescent light from above. That thought in mind, I laid down on my futon, contemplating my latest acquisition -- a brand-new wound.During the course of an otherwise unremarkable lecture in Gender Studies 101 my sophomore year of college, a student asked the professor a question. I don't remember what it was, or who asked it. What I do recall is the clarity, the pointedness, of the teacher's response. Her first name was Susan, which students were encouraged to use. She was in her late thirties, wore a wedding ring, and had two children. She had also recently finished writing a book about women and class. She was an articulate, avowed advocate for women's rights, and the 64 earnest young feminists (including three men) who filled that drafty lecture hall each Tuesday and Thursday adored her.Before answering the mystery question, Susan took off her glasses and, holding them in her right hand, let them dangle over the lectern. She gestured with her left as she spoke, cutting the still with her long fingers. "You will make choices. No woman truly has it all. Somewhere along the way, feminism became equated with the elimination of compromise in women's lives. But you will have to choose. Among career, family, ambition, personal life....You will make choices -- hard, unavoidable choices." Why was my mind returning to a sociology lecture nearly ten years ago as I struggled with the cap of the ibuprofen bottle? It must have been the circumstances that led me to the seemingly impetuous decision to pierce.I am going to turn 30 in just a few months. As a woman exceedingly responsive to external markers and the prod of linear time, this birthday has been looming large on my mind. My better self knows that I am not supposed to care; that angsting about such things is somehow a concession to the questioning relatives at Thanksgiving and those who would have us buy moisturizer containing alpha hydroxy acid; that such worries are, in fact, vain.But reason is one thing. The advertising and popular culture soaked mind of a woman is another. Maybe the opportunity for some critical-self assessment and, perhaps, a reprioritizing -- oh, who am I kidding, a setting -- of some overall goals is not such a bad thing. At least not for a woman turning 30. But everytime I approach this commonsensical, opening-an-IRA-sounds-like-a-good-idea kind of thinking, one notion cries out, keening like an Irish widow: I am not going to be in my twenties anymore. Now, don't get me wrong. My twenties were about as far from a Friends episode as one could possibly get. In the last eight years, I've lived in four cities, had a half dozen jobs ranging from the oppressive (assistant to a newlywed pair of editors whose main needs involved dry cleaning pick up and feeding their cat) to the bizarre (hair salon receptionist is really more trying than it looks), agonized over a line-up of bad relationships and, more often, extended physical encounters, and, throughout, rarely had the right clothes. In short, growing up lasts a lot longer than we're led to believe when we're kids. Like thousands of parents around the world, my father dangled the foreboding, "When you're 18, you can do what you want. Until then..." Oh, that magic number. I thought adulthood would simply happen one night, while I was sleeping. I would know I was a woman the day I woke up and had a sudden urge to cast aside my sweat socks for knee-high pantyhose.This transcendence into womanhood has yet to occur. I still prefer cotton socks, and underwear too. I live a la Mary Tyler More, in a cute, yet decidedly girlie, studio apartment, and I always feel a flash of illicitness ordering a drink on an airplane. My twenties may have contained elements of hell, but somehow they protected me from the possible inadequacies of incomplete woman-ness.What could make more sense at this critical passage than a spontaneous, body-altering act? Plus, it was clearly now or never. Everyone knows that what is hip, cute, daring on the body of a twentysomething becomes trying-too-hard, hopelessly unhip, even pathetic on those somewhere past the 3-0 mark. Hence my acquaintance with Rod, the navel-piercer.Considering it all in this way, I realize that I might just be panicking as I approach the precipice. But I don't think so. I believe that my sociology professor was right -- that there are hard choices ahead. The difference now, as I exit my third decade, is that I no longer have plenty of time. Certain choices -- about career, children, what I want my life to be -- loom closer. In fact, I've already made many choices by default, choosing not to choose. While some of my friends have focused on traveling, or grad school, or building strong relationships, or having children, I've focused on working, and acquiring knowledge -- and gaining recognition as the woman, I suppose, I've become. When I look at my friends, I realize each has been doing just this in her own way. We've gained the unique confidence that arises from experience and self-knowledge. A door prize for passing 30. Of course, the right clothes still help.Not surprisingly, these sentiments did not get through to my mother, whose shriek of horror was followed by instructions for the application of antibiotic ointment when I told her of my weekend outing. But somehow, it didn't matter. I know that despite its putative self-indulgence, my navel ring has given me more than an excuse to wear baby t-shirts.

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