“The I of It” by A.M. Homes

I’ve always found A.M. Homes’ subject matter intriguing because she usually chooses to write about male sexuality, and deviant male sexuality at that. Not having a penis, I would never attempt to describe the experience of having one, especially in the explicit terms of this story, which is all about a man’s relationship to his penis.

The first few paragraphs offer some interesting images. The image of the narrator “shuffling one foot in front of the other as though in shackles” made of his jeans and underwear suggests that his genitalia have somehow become a burden. But the second paragraph offers rather contrasting images: his penis, like a pet, rubbing up against his ankle, kept in a drawer like a fond memento.

In his memories of his childhood, he remembers his penis as the thing that separated him from his mother and sisters. Because it made him unique, people treated him differently, which empowered him in a way. He understood his penis as something to be admired. I understand his sexual liaisons with men as also intended to represent nonsexual social interactions between males, which Homes suggests is based upon admiration of their common parts. So is Homes suggesting that women are willing participants in empowering men through their genitals? ….That didn’t sound right. Or, considering that the narrator is male, is Homes implying that males think that women respect or admire or idolize their penises, but really only they appreciate their genitalia?

As is the case with all of the stories in The Safety of Objects, the main character of this story is dealing with identity and the slipperiness of it. Homes implies, though does not specifically state, that the narrator has AIDS and that the disease, while it emaciates most of the body, does not affect the penis.

I see sick men, friends that have shriveled into strangers, unwelcome in hospitals and at home. They can’t think or breathe, and still as they go rattling towards death, it never loses an ounce, it lies fattened, untouched in the darkness between their legs. It is strikingly an ornament, a reminder of the past.
Should I ask for a divorce? A separation from myself on the grounds that this part of me that is more male than I alone could ever be has betrayed me. We no longer have anything in common except profound depression and disbelief.

The disease, as diseases often do, has created a fissure between the narrator and his body, or in this case a part of his body. It has attacked his masculinity, in a way, by not attacking what he considers the source of his maleness. I suppose the, er, fortitude of his penis compared to the ailing of his body makes him feel as though he never fulfilled the potential of his sex. The ending suggests that such essentialist ideals of gender lead to self-destruction. As the title implies, the narrator is trying to separate his “I” from the collective idea of “It”—how is he a part of this thing called masculinity.