Pete Campbell always gets to home base.
Since Erin and I have been trying to have a baby for several months now, I agreed to get a semen analysis last week.¹ This is not something I imagined when I thought about the steps toward fatherhood. What man assumes he is fertilely defective?
The first embarrassing thing I did was walk into the wrong office. The lobby I entered had three sets of couples seated together: holding hands, talking quietly, smiling or staring at the floor. I walked past them to the front desk.
The woman behind the desk was drinking Diet Coke through a straw and reading People magazine.
“Hi, I’m Ben Vore and I have a 9:30 appointment for …” I didn’t finish the sentence.
She leaned in and finished it for me. “For a semen analysis?” she said in a whisper that was louder than normal talking. Behind me I imagined the men shaking their heads, thinking, Poor guy.
But am I really a poor guy? According to WebMD, “Up to half of all cases of infertility involve problems with the man.” What’s more, “Doctors arbitrarily diagnose infertility when a couple hasn’t conceived a child after 12 months of unprotected and frequent sex.” We’ve hardly been trying for 12 months. This was more of a preemptive test for peace of mind. (WebMD notes, “Male infertility testing can also spare women unnecessary discomfort and expense.” What husband doesn’t want to spare his wife unnecessary discomfort — lack of insurance coverage be damned?)
“You’re in the wrong place,” the woman informed me. “You’ll want to go back out those doors, turn right and go down the hall. The lab is the last door on your left.”
I exit gracefully.
The lab is tucked away at the end of the hall. I think of the mutant toys from Sid’s room in Toy Story, hidden away in the dark corners. I am not a mutant toy.
No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t picture what the room where I would ejaculate into a tiny cup at nine thirty in the morning would look like. It turns out to be like a mini-hotel room. There is a couch with, disconcertingly, a folded white bed sheet. A TV with built-in DVD player sits on a small cabinet. A radio is next to it, preset to white noise volume on an AM station. There is a lamp on an end table with a miniature wicker drawer where I am told to leave my cup. In the corner of the room is a nook with a sink and clothes hamper.
My doctor says, “When you’re done, just give me the thumbs up as you leave.” He gives me a thumbs up as if I need a visual reminder. Then he shuts the door.
I am left alone in a room with more pornography than I have ever seen in my life. Next to the TV is a DVD entitled Whispering Horses. (See “Correction.”) There is a stack of Playboy magazines in a bin below the end table. It is 9:38 a.m.
I have never watched a porno. (Magazines were a different story.) I have friends for whom this is an astonishing fact, and I have friends for whom this is not an astonishing fact at all. My first experience not-watching a porno was in seventh grade at my friend Aaron’s house. When it was clear what was being put into the VHS player, my hairless twelve-year-old armpits began sweating. On one hand I was intensely curious about what was going to be on that tape. On the other, I already knew the shame and guilt that would come with watching it. I was a very conflicted twelve-year-old.
I ended up not watching. First I sat facing away from the TV, then I pretended to sleep. My friends thought it odd I wasn’t joining them, but they didn’t pressure me. They were my friends.
Even though I didn’t watch the porno, I still felt riddled with guilt. I ended up telling my parents that we had watched a porno at the sleepover, only I said it in a way that implied I had taken part. Why did I do this? I think because I wanted to feel “normal” (every guy wanted to watch this, right?), and because I felt like I needed to be scolded.
What was clear to me even then was that lust was not love. My conception of the two was mutually exclusive. I subscribed to a sort of sexual gnosticism: lust, fully bad, was also the route that offered pleasure; love, fully good, was the route that offered the endgame of chaste, sexless thrills (like side hugs or eternal cheek kissing). I, of course, would be doomed to love. At the age of twelve, I believed I would marry a nice, smart, kind, compassionate — and forever homely — girl. I firmly believed this.
“What are you going to do?” Erin asked me after I agreed to the semen analysis.
“I think I’ll figure it out,” I said.
“But, like … how? I mean, what will you think about?”
We had just finished a series with our junior high youth group about sex, and pornography and masturbation had been topics of much conversation among the men. The irony of my situation was not lost on me.
I had been advised to remain abstinent for two to five days prior to my appointment, a task I (we) failed. At around 9:44 a.m., I realized this might be a problem. I didn’t have much in the tank.
At that point I put in Whispering Horses. It had the opposite effect: I am — and I thank God for this, though I wanted to curse him at that moment — someone who is not turned on by pornography. The magazines did not work either. I couldn’t not picture those women as daughters, sisters, wives and mothers.
I kept thinking, “You cannot fail at this. You cannot fail at this.”
At 9:53 a.m., I acknowledged that I was going to fail at this.
When I passed my doctor’s office on the way out, he looked at me expectantly. I gave him the thumbs down.
“Oh,” he said.
We rescheduled the appointment. I was told I could not be refunded my money but that I wouldn’t be charged for a second visit. This seemed fair to me.
I left Erin a voice mail informing her of my failure.
“Honey, it’s ok,” she said when she called back. “You don’t have to go back again.”
I gave this some thought. “No, I can do it,” I told her.
A little later in the conversation she said, “This would be kind of a funny blog post. Too bad we can’t write about it.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Too bad.”