This work first appeared in Yemassee 22.2.
“He that loveth pleasure shall be a poor man.”
It’s my first memory. I’m lying in bed, squirming and laughing. My father has lifted my shirt, is blowing farts on my small stomach. I giggle at his wet mouth, his pressure pushing on me, escaping into noise.
He traces his finger around my belly button, says shhhhhhhhhhhh, circling the navel. I don’t feel the tingle as much on my stomach as up my spine, sparking wildly on my scalp. He stops circling, pops my navel: sshheewwwwPp!
I drift into sleep. I don’t wake till morning.
The Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, or ASMR, is a response some people get when watching a person give careful attention to an object, or when someone is in close proximity. They feel a tingling sensation in the scalp, back, or limbs.
They experience a great calm. They experience euphoria. Some refer to the phenomenon as a “braingasm.”
Dr. Steven Novella, a neurologist at the Yale School of Medicine, has suggested the possibility that ASMR might be a type of pleasurable seizure.
I am 9. I have my pillow with me. Our whole house is covered in beige carpet, a deeper color than intended due to the stains and spills of a decade of children, pets, and neglect. Only the kitchen has the smooth hardwood I lust for.
I back up, hold my pillow in front of me, and then sprint across the living room, diving head-first into the kitchen. But instead of a slide, I leap up too far, resulting in a belly flop onto the wood. The pillow lands beneath my stomach, and my face slams, hard, to the floor.
There isn’t much blood. Just pieces of my two front teeth in front of me. I don’t cry. But the raw, exposed pulp of my teeth is distressing. The pain from rubbing my tongue over what’s left buzzes in my head. I panic, ask my mother, do I have to get dentures now?
Dental pulp is made up of soft tissue, blood vessels, large nerves, and cells called odontoblasts, which help to form dentin.
Dentin is made up of calcified tissue that lives between enamel and the pulp. It is denser and harder than bone.
I am 11. My dad, now a new preacher, has sat me down on his bed. I am only permitted in his room when I’m in trouble. He has found my Internet history, the dark trails I left behind a few nights before as I fell into new knowledge.
I am too young to understand what all this is about, why pictures can hold such fascination. I only know the racing pound of pulse, the stiffening ache of my penis. I am uncertain what to do next.
But he tells me about the yank and pull, the rough and tender, the lightning strike of incomprehensible pleasure. He uses words like gift and sin, meant-to and misuse, desire and shame.
And because I have not yet known the pleasure, it’s the shame that sticks.
There are thousands of ASMR videos now collecting views on the Internet.
Using headphones, the viewer can hear the sounds intimately, like someone is right next to them. The people in the videos talk quietly, explain what they are doing to the viewer. They give haircuts and suit fittings, sell jewelry, page through books, trace roads in maps, whisper obscure facts about animals, and babble incoherently from one ear to the other.
The result is supposed to be relaxation. However, some have complained that with each viewing, the intended shuddering sensation loses its potency. Like polluting something pure.
I am 7. The thing I want most is attention. My father grants it occasionally, lying next to me on the dirty carpet to look through my hockey card collection. He looks at the stats on the back, tells me stories about each St. Louis Blues player.
“Peter Zezel. Shoots left. Good at face-offs. He used to play soccer, so he’s got quick feet.”
I don’t know what this means, but I imagine him kicking the puck back and forth between his skates, then into the net.
My favorite player is Shanahan, number 19. He shoots right. He scores a lot of goals. He has just been traded, and I am upset. My father, lying next to me, tells me about Shanahan’s replacement, a scrawny defenseman named Pronger.
He doesn’t tell me that Shanahan was traded because he fucked a line-mate’s wife.
He doesn’t tell me about the time, a year earlier, that he fucked a co-worker in a hotel room. He doesn’t tell me what tingle of guilt or pleasure he felt that night, the following morning.
A brain on heroin and a brain during orgasm are ninety-five percent the same.
My father preaches about sex. He relates a verse from 1 Corinthians: “All other sins a person commits are outside the body, but whoever sins sexually, sins against their own body.”
He preaches about what is permissible, reciting Matthew 5:28: “Anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
A study done at Emory University in Atlanta demonstrated that the male amygdala is much more active when watching porn than a woman’s, regardless of whether the woman expressed an equal interest.
A beautiful woman can make a man’s limbic system (the visual and emotional centers of the brain) become more active while also causing his pre-frontal cortex (the judgment area of the brain) to deactivate.
I am 10, jumping on my bed with a girl from church. We reach for the ceiling, laughing wildly. I nearly touch it, come down, and my teeth hit her in the head as she bounces up. Pain reaches its hand into my face and grips the front of my mouth.
When the girl’s mother comes running, she goes pale at the sight of me, leaves quickly. My mother enters, gathers herself. She sits me upright on the bed and smiles at me. She says, hey, I bet that hurts. Why don’t you put on your shoes, okay? I stop crying, nod.
I settle and embrace the silence of the throbbing, directionless pain. Her easy calm soaks into me, saves me from noticing my front teeth have bent all the way back, resting against the roof of my mouth.
We are 15, and we are on the couch in her parents’ house. I am on top of her. I am filled with delight at her breasts, her arms, her fingers, her lips.
We are frantic. We are manic. She grabs the back of my head, yanks me to her. Too hard. My face smashes on hers, and I recoil.
My front tooth has chipped again.
In the 1800s, people who had false teeth in England ate in their bedrooms before gatherings and events at the dinner table. This Victorian tradition protected them against the shame of having their teeth “fall off" while dining.
I am 16, and my jaw has started to ache in earnest. It pulses at me like a flashing traffic light. When I go to the doctor, he tells me I have a growth of some kind in my mouth, behind and below my back teeth. He tells me all the things it could be, but the only one I hear is cancer.
When it is removed, it turns out it’s only fluid, abscess from a rotten and leaking tooth.
A composite odontoma is a tumor frequently accompanied by “an eruption of the teeth.” The composite odontoma forms in the mouth, often due to the abnormal growth of another tooth, resulting in further teeth developing inside the tumor. It makes the jaw and face swell up to cartoonish proportions. It makes eating and swallowing difficult. It is extremely painful. As many as 232 fully formed teeth have been found inside a composite odontoma.
Another type of tumor, the teratoma, can form in the brain, the tongue, the neck, the nose, the coccyx; sometimes in the heart or liver, other times in the stomach or bladder. The teratoma is famous for its ability to form complex organs and processes, such as whole hands, feet, or eyes. But most of the time, these tumors don’t form such intricate structures. Most often, they just contain tissue, hair, bone, teeth.
Dr. Larry Young, for one, has claimed that love is simply a series of chemical reactions. If so, oxytocin, sometimes referred to as "the bonding hormone,” plays a part. It creates feelings of trust, warmth, and protective instincts.
Upon orgasm, men experience a five-hundred percent surge from a normal amount of oxytocin.
I was 16 when I first fell in love, watching her play Linkin Park on the piano with delicate, pale fingers. We met in the psych ward, spent our first week together there, having both failed at killing ourselves.
She didn’t like to be touched. Whenever her head tilted carefully over the piano and her hair fell into her eyes, I had to tell myself I didn’t want to. And I didn’t, not sexually, anyway. Mostly, I just wanted to hold her in my arms, to comfort her, to be comforted. But I didn’t need it.
And when we left the hospital, things were okay. For a while. But there were girls at my school who wore gym shorts so tight they molded themselves into the exact shape of what I wanted. There was one girl who sat on my lap during lunch period every day. A friend of my sister’s regularly cornered me outside homeroom, brushed her breasts against my arm, told me I should take her to homecoming.
But she still barely came near me.
And so I got into my car with someone else, someone who wanted to be touched. She wanted to touch me. She wanted more than I yet knew I was giving her. But I gave it to her, anyway.
After that, when the girl I loved called the house, I pretended I wasn’t there. I never called her back. I made my mother tell her that she and my father didn’t want me dating someone from the psych ward.
Male arousal is often unconscious, due to testosterone receptors that reside in a man’s spinal cord, brain, and penis. On many occasions, a man can attain a reflexive erection and not even become aware of it.
Testosterone causes the preoptic area of the male hypothalamus (the part of the brain responsible for sex drive) to be twice as large as a woman’s.
High testosterone levels result in men who are 38% more likely to have extramarital affairs than those with lower levels.
My teeth, if they could bruise, would be blackened by the beating they have taken. They have been chipped by a kiss, a bat, a sidewalk, a falling box.
They have been bent back to the gum like an open garage door.
They have survived countless hockey games only to have been fractured by a muffin, a soft taco.
When I was 18, I dated a missionary’s daughter. She was the sister of the girl I actually wanted to date. But because I didn’t want to hurt my girlfriend with the truth, I went behind her back with her sister. I was a crowbar that widened the gap.
If I’m honest, I snuck because I didn’t want to risk losing one if unsuccessful with the other. If honest, I’m a coward.
We don’t speak anymore. Not because they found out, though. Instead, it’s me that cut them out.
The pulp is the fleshy center of the tooth, the part that feels pain.
My father preaches from Matthew: “If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.”
He preaches from Proverbs: “But a man who commits adultery has no sense; whoever does so destroys himself.”
If shame comes from societal, political, and personal judgment, then sin results from celestial judgment.
When I was 19, I asked my mom if Dad had cheated on her. She couldn’t look me in the eye, and she took a long time telling me, swallowing certain words that were close to sobs. My dad never talked about it, leaving my mother to answer all my questions.
I have found, to my surprise, that I’m not angry with him; I am angry with myself. After all, am I not―at the hot, bleeding core of me―my father?
If God has made me, but is disgusted and ashamed of me, where hides His softness? Where the flesh, Oh Lord?
You have left me fragmented without proximity, without careful attention. You have crafted my brain to respond to touch in ways I can’t fathom. I foam for it. I break for it. I smash and grind into others for it.
Anything for a little pleasure.
If I give in to it, Oh Father, I might crack; I might chip her with me. I might become a tumor with teeth. Oh Lord, even the hardest parts of us break under pressure.
If too much pain occurs in a tooth due to decay, pressure, or trauma, a root canal will be performed. This procedure removes the pulp entirely, causing the tooth to die. No dentin will reform. No feeling will come back.
I am 23. When she touches me lightly on the arm, I recoil—apologize. I take her hand, trying to hide my rising tide of panic. I worry she can feel my pulse in the tips of my fingers, in my wrist.
I worry that I’m already intoxicated, that I’ve already lost control—I have to tell myself I don’t want this. I don’t want this. I don’t, I swear.
I don’t want this.
Jacob Little is the Managing Editor of the literary journal Profane, and is a PhD candidate in Creative Nonfiction at Ohio University. His recent creative nonfiction has been published or is forthcoming in Pithead Chapel, Treehouse, and Word Riot.