I slammed on the brakes a little too hard. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see the dixie cup filled with my seminal fluid, gliding across the passenger side seat like a hockey puck soaring towards a goal. I reached out and grabbed it, saving my sperm from certain suicide, and held it close to my chest, as if protecting it from predators.
“We’re almost there,” I whispered to my genetic material. “Just stay calm. Don’t die on me, you understand? Don’t you die on me!”
I put the car back into drive and moved slowly down the highway. I was going at least 10 miles under the posted speed limit, much to the consternation of every other driver on the road. But I wasn’t concerned with their uppity impatience. They could either slow down or get the hell out of my way. Every streetlight and stop sign, every pothole and sharp left turn and unexpected incline, held the potential for disaster. If I stopped paying attention for even a minute, it might result in my jism being splattered against the front windshield, like a teenage drunk’s brains on prom night, and then we’d have to start this whole excruciating process over again.
I looked down at the directions. It’d made so much sense when I was copying it from Googlemaps, but now it looked hopelessly complicated, as indecipherable as hieroglyphics. I glanced at my watch. Just twenty-four more minutes and it’d be too late.
“Dammit, Spitznagel” I muttered. “You wouldn’t be in this mess if you just jerked off at the hospital like a normal person.”
That had been the Dame’s argument. She thought I was making things unnecessarily complicated. “Just go to the clinic and get it over with,” she told me. “Why is this such a big deal? The man I married wouldn’t be freaked out by this. He’d masturbate in a public building whether somebody asked him to or not.”
She knew how to sweet-talk me. And as usual, she was right. When she met me, I was a masturbation machine. I’d spank it three or four times before breakfast. I could rub one out while washing dishes or doing laundry. I was the guy who thought the dressing room of a Gap was an opportunity to kill two birds with one stone. Even in my old age, on the downslide to 40, I relished the idea of doing something really inappropriate and dirty in public. Sure, it was for medical reasons, but there’s something deliciously filthy about walking into a big corporate-looking building and saying to the receptionist, “Hello. I have a one o’clock appointment. For what, you ask? I believe the Spanish called it una puñeta.” Even better if she was one of those medical professionals who couldn’t be fazed. Nothing is quite so exhilarating as finding the perfect licentious comment to make somebody blush.
“I’m sorry,” I imagined whispering to her, peeking out from whatever self-pleasuring barracks they’d assigned me. “I don’t mean to be a bother, but do you have any German anal fisting videos? That’s the only thing that’ll do it for me.”
That may’ve been good fun at one point in my life, but I’m long past such childish antics. At least in my masturbatory habits, I’ve settled into a comfortable rut. I have a routine that works for me, and I don’t see any good reason to change it. I have my favorite chair, in my favorite rarely visited room of the apartment. It’s a controlled environment. I know how to close the curtains just enough to get plenty of natural sunlight without sharing too much with the neighbors. I know the exact frequency of the hall creaks so nobody can sneak up on me. I have my own collection of vintage 80s porn, and watching it is as familiar and uncomplicated as drunk-dialing an ex-girlfriend.
But I knew it wasn’t just laziness keeping me from public onanism. Something about this whole procedure made me nervous. This wasn’t like when I was 23 and my roommate tried to convince me that we should donate sperm, as it was less personally demeaning than a 9-to-5 day job and would bring in a salary for an activity we were doing anyway. This was the sexual equivalent of a colonoscopy. The only good news was a lack of bad news. It’s not like the doctor would come back with my results and say, “Wow, we knew you were fertile, but we had no idea how fertile. You’ve got mutant sperm, m’boy. The lab technicians got a little pregnant just by handling it. Hope your wife is ready for quintuplets, and that’s if she’s on the pill and you’re wearing two condoms.”
I wasn’t as nervous as I could’ve been. I had reason to believe my boys could swim. At least a few times in my past, I’d been involved in tense conversations that began “Well what are we going to do now?” But sperm changes as you get older. When I was in my 20s, I could’ve hit a lamp across the room. But these days, my spooge isn’t in as much of a hurry. It takes its time, like a old person getting on public transportation.
There was a lot of pressure riding on one ejaculation. If my sample wasn’t sufficiently spermy — dancing across a petri dish and doing jazz hands in some Bob Fosse DNA stage spectacular — I’d have to wait another two weeks to get tested again. The pressure was definitely on. What if the hospital’s porn was just a basket of National Geographics? Or the nurse kept knocking and saying, “Everything okay in there?” I couldn’t perform under those conditions. If I managed to come at all, my sperm would be begrudging and hostile, like teenagers being herded out of a public park.
None of this would have been a problem if the closest fertility clinic wasn’t a goddamn hour’s drive away. Living in northern Florida has brought its fair share of inconveniences — no culture to speak of, no exotic cuisine that doesn’t come from a shrimp boat, and a political climate that could best be described as “no fat chicks” — but this was the first time I was genuinely surprised by how far the state was willing to go to make my life difficult.
The first challenge was just finding a clinic that offered male fertility testing. No matter how many times I did it, it was never an easy phone call. Why, I wondered, did every receptionist have to be female, and speak with the squeaky voice of a prepubescent? And I was never able to just come right out and ask for what I wanted. I just hinted at it, hoping they’d understand and finish my sentence for me.
“Do you test, uh… you know.”
“No, I’m afraid I don’t,” the receptionist usually said. “How can we help you?”
“The, uh, fluid.”
“You mean blood? Yes, we do a variety of blood tests.”
“No, no, the other fluid. The man liquid.”
“I’m sorry, sir, I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
Context means a lot when it comes to discussing sperm with strangers. In a social situation, I’d have no problem talking loudly and unabashedly about my giggle juice. But when speaking with somebody who will soon be evaluating my seminal bumper crop, I turn into Miss Manners. I assumed that “semen” was the proper medical term, but I worried that its obviousness might be considered crude. “Seed” maybe? Or was that too biblical? “Where shall I spill my seed?” “Load” seemed suitably vague, but possibly too vague. Would it make sense if not accompanied by the prefix “blow my”? What’s left? Baby batter? Jizzle? Man-jam? Personally, I thought “fromage” was the best option. It just sounds classy, like it should be served with chianti.
When I finally mustered the courage to be specific about which fluid I wanted put under a microscope, the majority of them politely said no. A few seemed shocked that I would even suggest such a thing, which I found confusing and a little off-putting. “Oh come on,” I wanted to scream back at them. “I’m not asking to donate in the lobby. Just point me towards the nearest janitor’s closet.”
The real head-scratchers, though, were the clinics that claimed they only offered fertility testing for their post-vasectomy patients.
“Well, can’t you just do the test for somebody who wants to be fertile?” I asked.
“It doesn’t work like that,” they said curtly.
“But it’s the same test, isn’t it? The only difference is I’ll still have my balls.”
“Sir, no, you don’t understand…”
“Okay, how about this?” I suggested. “I pay for the vasectomy but don’t actually get it. It’ll be our little secret. Then will you give me a fertility test?”
“No, I’m sorry.”
“Okay, okay, fine. Just out of curiosity, do you only give mammograms to women who’ve had their breasts removed?”
After days of calling every number in the phone book, I finally located a clinic that didn’t treat me like a pervert asking to jerk off in the bushes while watching their daughter shower. The only snag was that the clinic was an hour away. Exactly an hour if I didn’t hit traffic, followed the directions perfectly, and let the car roll into neutral rather than parking. The hour rule was extremely important, they kept reminding me, to ensure the best motility and morphology of my sample. After an hour, it’d be as useful as dried spunk in a tube sock.
“You can always do it here,” the receptionist suggested.
“I guess so,” I half-whispered. “Do you have any midget bondage porn?”
“I think I’ll take my chances at home.”
Being on a strict timetable takes the eroticism out of masturbation. I’d made an appointment with the clinic to drop off my sperm at 3pm, which meant I’d need to ejaculate exactly at 2pm, not a moment earlier or later. I closed my eyes and tried to focus on sexy thoughts, but the Jeopardy theme kept interrupting, reminding me that the clock was ticking. When I finished, the Dame was waiting for me outside, holding up the car keys and directing me towards the closest exit.
“Move, move, move!” she hollered, like I was a marathon runner in the final stretch.
“You know what they should call this?” I asked as she pushed me into the car. “The Sperminball Run.”
She said nothing, just forced a smile and placed the keys gently into my hands.
“You get it?” I persisted. “Like the movie Cannonball Run? But it’s Sperminball instead of Cannonball. Sperm-in-balls. It’s a race to get my sperm to the clinic before anybody else. Funny, right?”
“What are you, six years old? Just drive!”
That was… oh god, 40, 45 minutes ago? It suddenly occurred to me that I hadn’t asked our doctor nearly enough questions. For the long car ride over to the clinic, were there any special instructions on keeping my sperm extra… breedy? Should I be blowing on it or something? Maybe cracking open a window like it was a dog being left in a grocery store parking lot? Was I supposed to be tapping on the side of the cup to encourage air flow and circulation, or talking to it just to let it know this wasn’t another masturbatory hyjink and it wasn’t about to be flushed down the toilet in a Viking funeral of crumpled kleenex?
And what about the temperature? Should my sperm be warm or cold, or somewhere in between? I cranked the air conditioning as high as it would go. It seemed to make sense; internal organs being transported between hospitals are usually stored in coolers filled with ice, right? But the more I thought about it, the more illogical it seemed. Didn’t sperm prefer an environment that’s warm and wet, like a vagina? It’s not like you could increase your chances of getting pregnant by icing down the cooter. Semen, if given the choice, was more comfortable cozying up to a balmy, hospitable ovum or hanging out in a toasty pair of testicles than being dunked in an ice bucket.
“What do you want from me?” I yelled at the sperm, instantly regretting that I was speaking to it like something with ears and a personality. “I’m trying to do what’s right here! We just want a fucking baby! Tell us what it’s gonna take to turn you into a baby!”
It surprised me to hear that word coming out of my mouth. “Baby.” Seriously? I wanted a baby? I was still getting used to the idea. For as long as I’d known the Dame, we were the couple that opted for culture over reproduction. We enjoyed children, but we enjoyed them ironically. We had no interest in kids who were just blandly adorable or precocious. We gravitated towards those children with an adult’s grasp of creative profanity. Any cherub can be taught to regurgitate words like “fuck” — demonstrating the cerebral prowess of a parrot is nothing to brag about — but it takes a special adolescent intellect to use a word like “twunt” or “cock-nuggets” or “fuckaluckadingdong” and give it context.
But while we could admire children from afar, that didn’t mean we wanted one of our own. We avoided breeding for generally the same reasons we recycled or drove a hybrid. Because given the crappy condition of the planet, it was really the only unselfish choice.
“But don’t you just love children?” people would ask when we admitted our complete lack of interest in propagating the species.
I’ve never understood that question. Were they honestly asking if I had unconditional affection for children in general? All children? I try to take human beings — all living creatures, really — on a case-by-case basis. I don’t “love” any large group of people. Claiming to love all children makes as much sense as saying, “I love Puerto Ricans.” Really? For me, that seems like a gross generalization that can be easily disproven just by being in the same room with more than three Puerto Ricans. And the same logic applies to children. Some children are so goddamn cute that I want to steal them away from their parents and take them home and dress them up like characters from a Humphrey Bogart movie. And some children, well, some children are assholes. And I’d say as much to their face.
But this argument falls on deaf ears for many people. Or at least people who have children of their own, and are unwilling or unable to concede the possibility that their babies are anything but a precious gift straight from heaven. I’ve had friends — perfectly intelligent, creative, rational friends — who, after becoming parents, have thought it reasonable to ask me, while I’m visiting them for the first time post-birth, whether I’d enjoy bathing their child.
“It’ll be fun,” they’ve asked, holding out their babies like it’s a kilo of coke and I’m Gram Parsons.
I was fine with my role as an unapologetic outsider. All of my friends could give up on their artistic ambitions and devote themselves to raising tiny, pink versions of themselves. I didn’t care. And they could judge me to their heart’s content, whispering behind my back and feeling sorry for everything I was missing. As long as I didn’t have to become one of them, I was content with my lot. For all I knew, they might be right. Raising a child may be a rewarding and heart-warming experience, changing the entire way you look at the world. But despite their ringing endorsements, you can’t deny this unequivocal truth: Being a parent has never, in the history of humankind, made somebody more interesting.
But somewhere around my mid-30s, that cynicism started to crumble away. I wasn’t the guy who looked at children and muttered, “There but for the grace of God go I.” I was the guy who sat on a bus with his wife and realized they were both staring at a four year-old girl with blond curls and a smile that could melt butter. There was nothing creepy or sinister in our stares. We didn’t look at her with thoughts of whisking her away to a van with blackened-out windows and sending demands for ransom money. We looked at her and imagined having a daughter that we could mold into a human being that made us proud, who frightened our parents with her liberal agenda and civil disobedience, and spoke of herself in the third-person just to annoy her teachers, and told boys she wouldn’t kiss anybody who was a “tool of the patriarchy”, and asked for her first tattoo at seven (forcing us to be the disciplinarians, insisting that she couldn’t get the Neutral Milk Hotel aeroplane phonograph burned into her lower back until at least 13), and was happy to be labeled the “trouble-maker” at her preschool after teaching her peers that “Thomas the Tank Engine is a queer.”
It was something we never knew we wanted until we wanted it. But at 39, it was starting to occur to us that we might be too late. Not just biologically, but intellectually. Some people are born to be parents. They can change a diaper with the razor-sharp precision of a sushi chef, or carry the various baby apparati (strollers, toys, etc) on their backs like they’re sherpas. And they also seem to know exactly what to do when things get… weird.
Last Thanksgiving, the Dame and I visited my brother and his family in Los Angeles. His son Teddy, now two and a half, is the most compelling evidence I’ve seen yet that reproduction might be worth the hassle. I find him endlessly delightful, and Teddy seems to enjoy my company more than most adults do. Getting him to laugh is no longer a challenge, but it remains one of my greatest pleasures. The relative ease of our relationship has given me an unreasonable confidence in my ability to understand and perhaps even raise a child of my own someday. While spending time with my nephew, I’ve actually caught myself thinking, “Y’know, this parenting thing ain’t so tough. I could do this.” I forgot that it’s like when you’re invited into the cockpit of a plane, and the pilot lets you hold the controls for a few seconds, and you think, “Holy shit, I’m totally flying this plane.” But really, you’re not flying it at all. The most you’ve proven is that you can hold the controls of a plane without immediately sending it into a tailspin or crashing into a mountain. If being competent for a few seconds while you’re closely monitored by an expert is the only criteria, then I also have the potential to be a surgeon and a circus acrobat.
Just as my confidence was at its peak, the rug got pulled out from under me. At some point during our visit, Teddy lured me upstairs to his bedroom with promises of a “dance party”. It turns out he actually just wanted to skip around his room and sing along to “The Lonely Goatherd”, his favorite song from The Sound of Music. Not exactly what I had in mind. But I’m his uncle and I adore him and I’m determined to make him happy at any cost. Besides, I thought I might be able to introduce him to the pop-and-lock, and a prepubescent boy well-versed in the choreographic poetry of a pop-and-lock just makes the world a better place for everybody. My plan was moving along smoothly until Teddy made an announcement that chilled me to my marrow.
“Let’s take off our shirts,” he shouted, his entire face lighting up like he’d just had the most awesome idea of his short life.
It was as if time and space were frozen in that moment. The music kept playing — “lay ee odl lay ee odl lay hee hooooo” — but my nephew and I just stared at each other, waiting to see what would happen next.
I had no clue how I was supposed to respond. Obviously Teddy’s suggestion was completely innocent. A two year-old is incapable of being sexually inappropriate. He could’ve put his face in my crotch and made motorboat sounds and it still would’ve been wholesome and sweet.
But what was I, a reasonable adult and his temporary guardian, supposed to do in this situation? Teddy tugged at my shirt, his eyes imploring me to play along, not understanding why I was being reluctant. I suppose there would’ve been no harm in a little shirtless dancing between family members. It wasn’t like I suspected his intentions might be more sinister, like he was just waiting for his opportunity to lower the lights and whisper, “You know what else might be kinda funny? If we gave each other backrubs.”
But still, it didn’t seem like the best precedent to set. Did I really want him to associate “Uncle Eric’s coming to visit” with “that means we get to take our clothes off and dance!” Not that it’d ever get that far. All I needed was for his mother to walk past his room with a basket full of laundry, pausing just long enough to catch a glimpse of her shirtless son, dancing hand-in-hand with his uncle, who was also shirtless.
“This isn’t how it looks,” I’d scream as I covered my man-nipples, glistening with sweat, like a coed in a teen sex comedy. And then I’d point to Teddy, still grinding to the music, oblivious to his mother’s horror. “It was all his idea!”
I couldn’t spend one lousy afternoon with my nephew without encountering a moral dilemma that made me want to run screaming from the room. What chance did I really have of owning and raising one of these things — these tiny, fragile human beings — without fucking it up? Every day, it seemed, presented another new barrage of unanswerable quandaries.
It suddenly made sense to me why some people just give up. I never thought of myself as the type of parent who’d look at a dumpster and then look at his baby and then look back at the dumpster and think, “Hmmmm.” But now, well, I could sympathize. It’d make me unbearably sad, but I could understand what it’d be like to find a nice-looking house in a nice-looking neighborhood and ring the doorbell before running away. When the homeowner opened their front door, they’d look down and see a baby, cute and pink and shiny with possibility, with a note safety-pinned to its diaper: “TOO CONFUSING.”
“Well where are you now?” the Dame asked.
I didn’t have the slightest idea. All I could remember was that the roads changed randomly from words to numbers and back again. How can one stretch of highway be called San Marco Avenue, 139th Street, Castillo Drive, Interstate 1-A, Avenida Menendez and for at least a few blocks, Old Mill Road?
“Wait a minute,” the Dame said, cutting me off as I tried to explain my journey. “You took another left turn?”
“Yeah, I think so.”
“And that’s your fourth left turn?” she asked.
“Well, sweetie,” she said with remarkable composure. “I’m pretty sure four left-hand turns in a row means you’re going in a circle.”
She was right. Unless a “slight left” and a “hard left” meant something very different in the south, I was screwed.
She had every right to be frustrated with me. I had the easy part of this deal. To determine her fertility, the Dame’s lady business had been prodded and poked in ways that shouldn’t be done to anything that isn’t Silly Putty. Numerous doctors had stuck their arms inside her like they were kids digging for a prize at the bottom of a cereal box. I, on the other hand, just had to jerk off into a cup.
And let’s be honest, I probably would’ve done that anyway. I was just flattered that somebody bothered to ask.
To her credit, she was always a good sport. “It’s no different than any other gynecological exam,” she said. But when she described the exact procedure to me, leaving out none of the gooey details, it always made me cringe.
“Were they looking for trapped coal miners?” I asked, horrified.
I could only assume that her gynie doctor was somewhere between sadistic and functionally retarded. How else to explain it? I had nightmares of the Dame, bless her patient soul, with her ankles strapped back in stirrups like something from fetish porn, and the doctor doing things to her snooch that, let’s face it, if anybody was really paying attention, is probably medically unnecessary.
“Oh look,” I imagined her doctor saying, pinching her lips with gloved fingers. “If you squoosh it together like this, it almost looks like she’s frowning. Why are you so mad, Mrs. Vagina?”
The thing that most surprised me about trying to make a baby is that it isn’t nearly as fun as it sounds. And I’m not just talking about the doctor visits and semen samples and the ovarian Fantastic Voyage. I’m talking about the fucking. And condomless fucking, no less. The kind of fucking that most men only get to enjoy post-vasectomy, or vicariously by watching porn. It’s the dream — the dream. A Martin Luther King kinda dream. It’s that monumental and inconceivable.
But as it turns out, years of safe sex have ruined me. I’m incapable of enjoying intercourse sans protection. The health-ed classes of my youth had apparently did an excellent job at conditioning me to fear all genitals not wrapped in plastic. Thanks to their scare tactics, I grew up believing that the only difference between unprotected sex with your date on prom night and putting your cock in a truck stop glory hole is the eye contact. After enough frightening statistics are rammed down your throat, every vagina starts to looks like a pinata, bursting at the seams with crack babies and blistering herpes sores. And my penis, well, it was just a loaded handgun with a broken safety, ready to fire off at any moment. I came of age in a pre-Knocked Up and Juno world, where unplanned pregnancy didn’t lead to sardonic hilarity. Getting your lady-friend pregnant meant that your life were ruined. Not minorly inconvenienced or fodder for postmodern bon mots, but time-to-get-a-job-at-Target-and-give-up-on-your-dreams ruined.
I know things have changed for the Dame and I. The consequences are gone. Actually, the consequences are now a good thing. Everything I once wanted not to happen is suddenly the goal. Except the STDs, of course, but the Dame and I didn’t just meet in the parking lot of an IHOP. We’ve known each other for awhile, so we’re pretty sure there are no surprises. The other downside of sex, the part that makes teenagers lose sleep and cry at their stupidity, is actually on our “to do” list. But even knowing all this, I still can’t come without muttering, “Sorry, sorry, sorry!!”
And on the subject of orgasms, condom or no condom, they’re not as effortless at 39 as they were at 29 and especially 19. It must be a gender thing. The Dame can have an orgasm like she’s got a bus to catch. She comes before I even realize we’d gotten started. But I need a little longer to get warmed up, to get “in the zone”. Sometimes I can see the impatience in her eyes. I’ll be trying to find my rhythm and she’s got that look on her face like she’s wondering if I’d notice if she picked up a book. She does the performance, but it’s just for my benefit. “Get on with it already,” she might as well be saying, “I’ve got things to do.” And of course, when somebody is waiting for you to come, it becomes even more elusive. It’s like the robe-climb in high school gym class. You want to scream, “I might get this done faster if everybody would just stop staring at me!”
Sometimes we both get into a funk. It’s difficult to let your sexual mojo take over when there’s that constant reminder floating over the bed: We’re trying to make a baby. There’s absolutely nothing erotic whatsoever about it. It’s utilitarian. It’s about as hot as slowly undressing your partner and, just as you’re about to slide inside her, whispering into her ear, “Whaddaya say we make your mom a grandmother?”
It helps, we’ve found, to pretend we’re doing something we shouldn’t be. You know… how most people become parents. Or as we’ve come to refer to it, the Sexual Whoopsies. I’ll play the part of a douchebag, talking the Dame into doing something she knows she’ll regret tomorrow. I promise to “put it in for a second, just to see how it feels,” and she hurriedly agrees, blinded by wine coolers and low self esteem.
“I’ll just put in the tip,” I mumble, laying on top of her like it’s a wrestling match and I have her pinned.
“Okay,” she giggles with a Rosie Perez nasal drawl. “But don’ ge’ me preggers or ma daddy’ll come afta yew wita meat cleva!”
Our sex, at least for the moment, is all about reverse psychology. If we don’t want to get pregnant, and become (if only briefly) the kind of contemptible human beings who should never be allowed to reproduce, then somehow the universe will conspire against us to make it happen.
Sometimes it works like a charm. And sometimes we feel like those couples who go on daytime talk shows to explain how role-playing saved their marriage. If you’re a balding dude with a ponytail married to a woman who thinks sweatpants are “outside clothes,” there’s a reason why you can’t get aroused without dressing up like vampires or rotund geishas. That’s nature’s way of saying, “No, please, just… just no, okay?”
Most nights, the Dame and I will lay on our bed postcoital, exhausted mentally and physically, both of us wondering the same thing.
“Just think,” the Dame says. “We could’ve been having unprotected sex for years and not getting pregnant.”
I glanced down at my watch again. I was just eight minutes and sixteen seconds away from being officially late. If the stern warnings I’d been given by many nurses were to be believed, my sperm wouldn’t be worth a damn after the one hour mark. Any fertility test would be useless, like trying to get a heartbeat from a dead raccoon at the side of an interstate. But I wasn’t willing to give up just yet. I pulled over to a roadside bar — which, like all roadside bars in northern Florida, had the word “shack” in its name — and ran inside to ask directions.
It was one of those uniquely southern dives, with picnic benches instead of tables and windows that don’t close. The clientele were mostly retired military, their laughter indistinguishable from their smoking hacks, their arms covered in blue tattoos that look like ink smudges. I slid into a seat nearest the exit, somehow managing to sit without touching anything. The bartender, a sinewy behemoth with deep frown lines and a crewcut so geometrically perfect that it could be used as a level, marched over like he expected me to pull out a firearm.
“You’re not ever close,” he snorted after I explained my dilemma. “You’re at least eighty miles north of where you’re headin’.”
I sighed dramatically and lowered my head onto the sticky bar. I was acutely aware that everybody in the tavern was staring at me, which struck me as hysterical, not because I was making a scene but because they were staring at me for reasons that had nothing to do with the NyQuil-size cup of semen I was cradling in my lap.
“Sorry, man,” the bartender said, in a voice that made it abundantly clear he was anything but. “Can I get you a drink?”
That was actually the best idea I’d heard all day. It’d been weeks since I’d tasted booze. As it turns out, alcohol has an adverse affect on sperm motility. And as I’m now a slave to the whims of my reproductive fluids, I’ve been drinking mostly green tea and tap water since the Dame read something on the Internet and decided it would be so. I’ve also been subsisting on cold showers, because according to certain fertility websites (run, I can only assume, by teenagers looking for new and more elaborate ways to punish middle-aged men) my testicles won’t produce enough sperm without the revitalizing shock of ice water.
“I’ll take a beer,” I said. “No, a whiskey. A whiskey and a beer.”
The bartender eyed me uneasily. “Are you okay, man?”
I was tempted to tell him everything, just start unloading my emotional baggage like he was a therapist or confession-booth priest and had no choice but to listen to my whole sad story. It would’ve been a welcome relief to talk to somebody who didn’t have a vested interest in my ability to procreate. But as much as I needed the release (Yeah, yeah, I know. When you start looking for them, you can’t avoid the ejaculation puns) I didn’t need yet another opinion thrown into the mix.
When you tell people that you’re trying to get pregnant — and even when you don’t and they’ve just heard from a friend of a friend of a friend of your mom — they share too much. They instigate conversations that two adults should never have with each other unless one of them is wearing a white smock and has a framed medical degree on his wall. Announce to a crowded room that you have anal fissures and it won’t spark a spirited debate about the best herbal ointments and whether to apply it with a clockwise or counterclockwise motion. But let it slip that your first or second attempt at getting pregnant didn’t hit the bull’s eye and complete strangers will walk up to you and say, “Have you tried maca root? It’s really good for your sperm, especially if you want to increase fluid volume.”
I’ve tried to be polite, flashing them a tight smile that translates roughly as “Thank you for your interest, but if it’s all the same, I’d appreciate it if you stopped talking about my sperm now, and for that matter, ever again. Also, while we’re on the subject, please never use the words ‘fluid’ and ‘volume’ in my presence, even if you’re talking about somebody else’s sperm, which for the record you should never do under any circumstance.” But they never get the hint.
And then there are our couple friends, some of whom have children of their own and some who just know people who have children, which I guess makes them experts by periphery. We’ve gone to dinner parties where, without any encouragement, various couples have surrounded us and launched into explicit discussions of strategic copulation.
“What positions are you trying?” one of the couples asked.
“P-positions?” the Dame stuttered in response. “You mean like… sexual positions?”
“You’re not on top, are you? At least until you get pregnant, you should never, ever, ever be on top. Please tell me you’re not on top.”
The Dame nodded and then shook her head, searching for the appropriate head gesture to agree or disagree, whatever they wanted to hear.
“Missionary is fine,” they continued, “but I highly recommend doggy style. That’s how James and I got pregnant.”
“No, no, no,” another couple howled. “It has to be missionary. That’s the only way it’s gonna happen. Missionary is so much more conducive for procreation.”
“It depends on the shape of your vagina. If it’s like mine and the vaginal opening is aimed towards your tailbone, doggy style is the only way to go. Also,” — this is where I’m pulled into the conversation despite trying my best to disappear behind a lamp — “make sure you bend her at a downward angle during intercourse.”
There’s really nothing you can say when somebody you barely know and only just met a few minutes ago over by the guacamole dip is instructing you on the sexual geometry of schtupping your wife. Everything I could’ve said would have sounded sarcastic. “You mean like an obtuse angle, or more of an acute angle?”
The Dame and I were annoyed by all the unwelcome attention at first — how had our private life slipped so easily into public spectacle? — but we barely pay attention anymore. We’ve come to accept that our genitals might as well be Macy’s parade floats, and the rest of the world was Al Roker making bemused commentary.
There are still moments that catch me by surprise. My 90-something-year-old grandmother, who couldn’t tell you where I went to college, when I got married or even what city I currently live in, somehow found out about my pregnancy aspirations and felt compelled to weigh in.
“How’s her cervical mucus?” she asked during my last visit.
It took me a second to realize she was talking about the Dame, and more specifically, her lady parts. “It’s… you know… it’s cool.” I thought that was offering a lot, given her creepily graphic question.
“Is it clear and slippery?” she persisted. “Because that’s what you want. It should always be clear and slippery.”
“I really don’t think we should be talking about this.”
I have a pretty high threshold for embarrassment, but I am utterly incapable of conversing with my grandmother about whether my wife’s vagina is sufficiently slippery. I wondered, was the Dame having a similar exchange with her own grandmother, fielding questions about the state of my testicles?
“How are his balls? Plushy and warm? When you jiggle them like dice, do you feel like you’re rolling snake-eyes or a pair of boxcars?”
Everybody tries to understand, but in the end I don’t think any of them do. I can’t tell them that all of their advice and encouragement really amounts to nothing. It’s just white noise, and it’s more distracting than helpful. I can’t tell them that I feel like a tired and sexually unmotivated gibbon, because honestly, how many of them would even get the reference?
Back in the late 90s, when the Dame and I still lived in Chicago, we spent countless snowy afternoons at the Lincoln Park Zoo. We came so often that we knew many of the animals on a first-name basis. The primate house was our favorite, and we became emotionally attached to a pair of gibbons named Berma (the girl) and Caruso (the fella). Their keepers told us that Caruso, who was approaching middle age in monkey years, had waited too long to procreate (“probably working on his novel,” I whispered to the Dame). If he didn’t mate with Berma soon, they told us with grim certainty, he might never spawn a progeny.
Many of Berma and Caruso’s frequent visitors — like us, young couples who’d recently started dating and only came to the zoo because it seemed vaguely romantic and was “something to do” when they weren’t having sex — took their reproductive plight personally. We visited the gibbons at every opportunity, pressing our noses against the glass partition, mumbling encouragement to Caruso, reminding him how alluring Berma was looking today and how any one of us, if given the opportunity, would gladly “hit that”, sometimes even singing a few choice lyrics from a Barry White song, anything we thought would demonstrate our moral support and get him into the mood for some serious baby-makin’.
We meant well, but the more we rooted for him, the more Caruso seemed to grow older. I’ll never forget one of our last visits, when we stormed towards his cage and started shouting and tapping on the glass, trying to rouse him from a late morning slumber. “Do it,” we practically screamed. “Doooooooo it! Doooooooooooo it!”
He rubbed his bloodshot eyes and smiled back at us, slowly lifting himself from the cold cement floor like every bone in his body was throbbing. “Okay,” he seemed to be sighing. “Just give me a minute.”
I never gave it much thought at the time — I was in my 20s, and sexual fatigue was as foreign to me as imagining my own death — but lately, as I slip closer to 40, I sometimes look in the mirror and see Caruso’s leathery face, the bags drooping under his eyes, the feeble smile that says he’s really sorry about disappointing everybody but he just doesn’t have the energy anymore.
How did I become a hoary, creaky-limbed, sad-faced gibbon? My friends and family could press their noses against my cage, humming Barry White songs and tapping on the glass and singing my virile praises, but it wouldn’t make a damn bit of difference. I’d lift my grey head just long enough to sigh in appreciation before settling in for a long afternoon nap.
I finished my beer and wandered out to the car. It was raining, tepid as bath water, and I watched it pound against the windshield with its tiny fists. I can’t do this anymore, it suddenly occurred to me. I can’t wait another two weeks — the medically required time frame between ejaculations — for my next chance to jerk off into a cup and drive around northern Florida looking for a goddamn fertility clinic that for some goddamn reasons was built on a marshland many miles from the nearest paved road.
I looked down at my semen, cold and lifeless, like a dead gangster floating face down in the Chicago River, and I was overwhelmed with despair. What if this had been The One? What if, out of all my deadbeat and shiftless seminal fluid, this batch contained one plucky little sperm with fire in its eyes, determined to storm the Dame’s ovum like a GI on the beaches of Normandy, and I’d wasted it?
And what if this sperm, which I let die in the passenger seat like a thief shot in the belly, had been cosmically destined to become the child the Dame and I always wanted; the kid who says “indubitably!” because she knows it’ll make mommy and daddy laugh; who happily wears her Pussy Galore baby tee in public, even though it makes grandma really uncomfortable; who’s always the first one in a room to say “What is this crap?” whenever the TV is turned on; who spends an entire weekend working on head-wound prosthetics — a mixture of cauliflower and roast beef chunks — because she’s determined to be “Depressed Hemingway” for Halloween; who never gets upset that her parents named her Doctor, because she knows it was meant with love and, okay fine, we thought it’d be kinda funny when she got into trouble at school and they announced her name over the intercom — “Doctor Spitznagel, please report to the principle’s office, Doctor Spitznagel” — and then if she grows up to become an actual doctor, her professional name will be Dr. Doctor, which will inspire many of her patients to ask, their lips trembling with the excitement of feeling momentarily original, “Doctor Doctor, give me the news, do I have a bad case of loving you?”, which they’ll think is absolutely hilarious and they’ll assume they’re the first ones to ever make the Robert Palmer reference, and even Doctor has to admit it’s kinda funny, not the first time or the third time but the ten-millionth time, because comedy is all about repetition, and when people ask her about it, “Did your parents really name you Doctor?”, she’ll just shake her head and say, “Yeah, they were kinda assholes,” but not in a hurt, mean-spirited way, but with a sly half-grin that lets people know it’s just an inside family joke that nobody but the three of us could possibly understand.
Maybe it’s not too late, I thought. I could drive back to our apartment and load up the ol’ turkey baster. “I’ll romance you later,” I’d tell the Dame. “Just sit still for a minute and let me do this.” No, no, no, no, dammit! It was too late! I’d waited too long! I considered calling the clinic and screaming at them — “You owe me a baby, you deceiving shitheads!” — but at this point, it seemed like such a useless gesture. Like yelling at a waiter when your order’s been screwed up. The last thing I needed was one of the nurses to spit in my semen sample.
My cellphone started chirping. I didn’t know it yet, but it was the Dame, calling to let me know that a friend of a friend of the family — an aging hippie who made her own clothing and hadn’t shaved her armpits since Bobby Kennedy was shot — had offered to do a dance for our fertility at her next all-womyn drum circle. Apparently this qualified as good news. But I let the call go to voicemail.
I needed a moment alone with Doctor, to say my goodbyes.