PENIS ENVY by Susan Celia Greenfield

by Susan Celia Greenfield

“Daddy, can I watch you make?”

I was following my father down our long hallway to the bathroom, pulling the cord of my toy telephone behind me. It was an old-fashioned rotary kind, with plastic wheels, a red handle, and big ogling eyes.

“Absolutely not!” He slammed the bathroom door in my face. A long, forceful stream of urine rang into the toilet bowl.

As soon as my father re-emerged I tugged at his pants. “Why can’t I see you urinate?” I pronounced the word carefully, emphasizing the your sound, hoping my adult lexicon would influence him.

“Stop it.” My father pushed me away, accidentally kicking my toy telephone. When I started wailing, my mother appeared at the end of the hallway, her brown curly hair in a high ponytail. I thought she was so beautiful.

“Daddy is mean. He won’t let me see his vagina!”

At this, my parents burst into laughter. “Oh dear,” my mother said. “Daddy doesn’t have a vagina.”

“What? You don’t have a special thing like me and Mommy?”

“Oh, I have a special thing all right.” My father winked at my mother. “If you could only see it you would want one too.”

“That’s not true!” I screamed, and ran down the hallway. When I reached the end, I saw my toy telephone lying on its side where my father had kicked it, staring at me with its great, knowing eyes.

Twelve years later, I recounted this story to my first shrink. In the well-populated world of suburban New York psychiatrists, Dr. William Coulson was an exotic specimen. Not only was he tall, sandy-haired and impossibly handsome, he was also not Jewish like every other psychiatrist I’d ever heard of, including the one my mother had to see after her nervous breakdown.

Neither were the jocks and debutantes at Thornton Academy, my new private high school. I felt out of place as soon as I arrived—too short, too frizzy-haired, and too buxom. My only friends were Christina Alvarez, a Peruvian scholarship student, and Sarah Frede, the anorexic daughter of a neglectful millionaire. In the locker room, the beautiful girls laughed when we changed into our gym clothes. The lacrosse players barked, “Woof, Woof!” when we passed them in the school hallway.

Christina looked away but Sarah hung her head and sniffed. “They think we’re dogs.”

In bed I couldn’t sleep, plagued by the memory of the terrible barking boys. If one of them really knew me, maybe he would like me and plunge his tongue into my mouth. But the boy I imagined began howling. I could see his lips widen, his teeth like sharpened knives. I’d heard a story on the news about a rapist in Manhattan who was breaking into women’s apartments and slashing their throats with a carving knife. As p.m. turned to a.m. on my digital clock radio, I thought about my mother’s carving knife in the kitchen, the same knife our housekeeper, Ana, used when making my family’s dinner. I thought about sneaking downstairs and slashing my throat.

Each morning I woke up with bone-crushing headaches, in too much pain to go to school. The pediatrician declared my symptoms psychosomatic and recommended Dr. Coulson, the best adolescent psychiatrist he knew. A few days later, Ana deposited me on the back doorstep of his home office. In the yard, a towheaded boy and girl frolicked with a big golden retriever.

“That cannot be true,” Dr. Coulson said, echoing my words in the urination story. I had happened upon it in describing when I first started hating my father.

“I know! Can you believe his idiocy? I mean, why would any girl want that thing anywhere near her body? The first time I ever saw a . . . a . . . a boy’s privates at nursery school, I thought there was something wrong with him.”

Though I hadn’t intended this as a joke, Dr. Coulson laughed. “And that’s not true either.”

Either? Inside my throat, a small hard knot began to tighten. “Wait—you mean you don’t believe me about my father?”

“It’s a fantasy. He never said anything of the sort!”

Although this was taking place in the eighties, Dr. Coulson still adhered to a strictly Freudian protocol. At his insistence, I had agreed to lie on his hard, orange couch, a box of tissues wedged between my knees, my back towards him like a true analysand. All I could see was a framed poster of van Gogh’s Starry Night. Behind me and out of sight, Dr. Coulson could peruse my whole body. It warmed me with shame how much I liked this.

Now I sat up. “Yes he did!” I couldn’t believe my psychiatrist was siding with my father.

“You’re unconsciously distorting his words.”

“Did you hear them? Were you there?”

“No, of course not. But this is a classic case of penis envy.”

I smacked the couch in disbelief. “I just told you those . . . those . . . things were, are disgusting!” Not that I’d had much occasion to view that particular body part since nursery school.

“Your disgust is really anger. Girls are often angry about their lack of a penis.”

“But that was my father’s fantasy!”

“I think you are projecting your own desires on to him. You probably blame your mother for that.”

“My mother?”

“For depriving you of a penis. That’s what daughters do. And they hate their mothers for it.”

The idea of blaming my mother was so ludicrous I actually snorted. “But I hate my father, not my mother. I just finished telling you that!”

“The daughter’s hatred is unconscious. It is very well known.”

“How could something unconscious be well known?”

“You’ve proven its truth by your very denial.”

The orange couch, my dirty socks, the swirling blue and yellow strokes of van Gogh’s Starry Night began to blur and drip. “But I adore my mother! Don’t you understand? When she had her breakdown, I thought she would die!”

At the memory of those wretched months, I curled my knees to my chest and clutched my stomach. Sobbing, I searched blindly for the tissues I had been hoping to avoid. My head pounded with the familiar pain of sleeplessness.

When Dr. Coulson finally spoke, his voice was softer, kinder, as if he wanted to break the next piece of news to me as gently as possible. “Perhaps you wanted your mother to die. Then you could have your father’s penis all to yourself.”

That did it! I stood up and stared straight into the gray eyes of my handsome first psychiatrist. “You’re a fucking idiot, you know that?”

Never before had I sworn at an adult and the biting pressure of the F sound resonated thrillingly on my bottom lip. I hurled my snot filled tissues into his lap, where they bounced a little on the small white notepad covering the very organ that had prompted all this misery. Sitting back in his leather armchair, his striped tie comfortably loosened, Dr. Coulson showed no emotion besides a surprised arch of one eyebrow, half covered by his longish hair.

His smug self-assurance, his condescending placidity, threatened a new round of tears. But this time, I was goddamn sure not going to let him see them. I swallowed the mucus that had dripped down my throat, stuffed my feet into my docksiders, and walked proudly out of his office, slamming the door behind me with all the violence I could muster. In the waiting room I grabbed my coat off the rack and marched down the short, carpeted hallway to the final exit.

It was early. Ana would not be waiting in the driveway, the motor idling, her eyes fixed blankly out the windshield. That was okay. I would simply walk all the way home by myself. When I finally arrived it would be so late and my parents would be so grateful to see me alive that they would accept my refusal to ever return to Dr. Coulson. Even my father wouldn’t yell. With a sense of victory, I swung open the door.

In charged the big golden retriever, who had somehow managed to get locked out of the house and was waiting anxiously in the driveway. Before I could even step outside, he leapt on me, pawing my throat and barking furiously, as if in some strange perversion of the actual events, I was trying to break into and enter the house instead of leave it. I dropped my coat and screamed, shaking my face against the dog’s thick spray of spit.

Dr. Coulson came running towards me. “Down, Brandy. Get off her!” He grabbed my bare wrist with one hand, the dog’s collar with the other, pushing the animal behind him.

“Are you okay? Did he hurt you?” My doctor’s mouth was so close I could smell his coffee breath. He pressed me against the wall, staring at me fixedly. I’m sure he was terrified about a lawsuit, but his eyes were so fervent, his hand so warm that a hot shock of desire seized my gut. I felt my entire body slacken, as if all I had ever wanted in my whole life was for this man to sweep me off my feet, rush me back to his orange couch, and rid me of my suddenly burdensome virginity.

Behind his back, the dog bounced impatiently and whined. Dr. Coulson released my wrist. “Wait right here,” he ordered, exiting with the dog while I stood still as a stone.

When he returned, Dr. Coulson swept his hand across his hair, then tightened his tie and stretched his neck. He nodded to my coat splayed like a corpse on the carpet. “How about picking that up and returning to my office.”

Without giving me a second look, he walked past me. I followed behind, hung my coat on the rack, and lay back down on the hard orange couch. Dr. Coulson closed the office door.

From this day forward, I rarely had insomnia or another migraine. That very night I began fantasizing about Dr. Coulson and masturbating like crazy. Whereas before, I was up at all hours thinking about the barking boys and the Manhattan slasher, now I lay in bed plunging my fingers and various household objects (a candlestick, a cucumber, the handle of one of my mother’s largish paint brushes) between my thighs, thinking about how maybe one day, the doctor would slam down his little notepad and rush from his leather armchair to the couch. “I can’t stand it anymore, my darling!” Down, down his face would come, his lips on my mouth, on my throat, in my cleavage. In one fell swoop he’d wrench my panties off my ankles and open my thighs like a big fat book. “Here,” Dr. Coulson would say, putting my hand on his gray flannel crotch. And though I had no idea what to expect, though neither the male nude my mother once painted nor the drawings in my biology textbooks had featured an erection, I would fearlessly unbuckle my first shrink’s black belt, unzip the crotch of his gray flannel pants, and free his mysterious penis from his fly. Whatever it looked like—a bottle top, a pepper grinder, a monstrously large snail head—I would pull it on top of me and thrust it in and out, softly at first and then harder and harder, my doctor’s heavy breathing mixing with his husky grunts: “I don’t love my wife”—in and out, grunt, grunt—“I love you”— grunt, grunt, in and out—“And your fabulous vagina, because”—in and out, grunt, grunt—“I always wished I had one!” Alone in bed, I came and came and came until I was so thoroughly exhausted I had no choice but to fall asleep. In the mornings, I awoke well-rested and migraine-free.

Within a few months, I found new friends at Thornton and my grades improved. My parents praised the good doctor and he raised his rates. And session after session, I faithfully reported all my fantasies, while Dr. William Coulson sat in his leather armchair, always out of sight.

Susan Celia Greenfield received a Ph.D. in English from the University of Pennsylvania and teaches literature at Fordham University in Bronx, NY. Her fiction has appeared in several journals, including Cimarron Review, Literary Mama, and The Stockholm Review of Literature. She is the author of a monograph about mother-daughter relationships in novels by women, and editor of the forthcoming book, Sacred Shelter: Thirteen Journeys of Homelessness and Healing. She is currently working on a novel.



Image credit: Charles Deluvio on Unsplash


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