My sperm are slow.
I don’t mean ‘slow’ as in ‘not very smart’.
My sperm have an impressively high IQ and sharp wit – if I do say so myself. They are NOT developmentally delayed or slow learners; make no mistake, these are not short-bus sperm.
My sperm are just slow. Physically.
They swim in slow motion. It’s a fact. Countless doctors have confirmed it. I have changed my underwear size, style, fit – and brand – numerous times to accommodate my little swimmers. I’ve slept in awkward positions; had sex in even more unconventional positions than I thought possible. I’ve even had surgery to give them a little boost. But no matter what, they seem to have one speed. Slow. They’re not lazy; I like to call them leisurely. My sperm don’t run, they stroll. The actual term is motility. ‘Poor motility’ – that’s what they call it when your sperm are like mine. It’s not an insult, dirty little secret or scarlet letter condition; they are not doomed and they don’t deserve to be shamed. They number in the kazillions, so there is no shortage; they are not endangered, but all of them, each and every one likes to take it’s own sweet time.
My sperm and I were supposed to be a father by now.
Our mantra is this: We may be slow but eventually we’ll get there. My sperm may not have speed on their side; but they have endurance. Like me. We are in it for the long haul.
“Hey Isaac, get in here. You have GOT to see this.”
The large, hairy man yelled. I was lying on my side, in what most members of the male species would consider the ‘vulnerable’ position. The backside of my dime-store hospital gown was gaping wide open as if to say, hi, come on in and have a look around; my smooth, 22-year-old bum faced an open doorway that someone named Isaac or Elijah was about to pass through. The man hollered again, “Hurry up, come take a look.” I don’t remember their names though I’m pretty sure the big one was named Abraham. And not I’m sure this is exactly what he said. They both spoke Yiddish. Their words muffled beneath shaggy, decade old beards; they wore prayer shawls, colorful yarmulkes – their dark features framed by long, well quaffed ringlets. Following a routine health exam by my primary care physician in a swank upper east side office – a stones throw from fifth avenue– the WASPY hood where I felt most at home – my insurance company referred me to ‘one of the cities top fertility experts.’ This is how I ended up half-naked on an exam table in a run down lower east side office building, adjacent to a turn of the century synagogue and a famous Jewish delicatessen.
The smell of lox and fresh baked bialys (onion flavored) wafted in through an open window while I jerked off into a plastic cup facing an ancient menorah. I said a prayer to every God I had ever heard of (and a few I made up) as this alleged fertility specialist and his assistant co-examined me. These two 50 year old Orthodox Jewish doctors seemed to me to be just a couple of rubber gloved rabbis rummaging around in my private altar. I guess this is what they mean when they that a prostrate exam can be a religious experience. If this sounds like something a 22-year old yuppie in training does for fun, as a hobby, or just to kill time on a lazy winter afternoon, you’re dead wrong. I wasn’t doing this for fun or for adventure. I wasn’t even doing for me. I was doing it for my bride. Molly and I had been married a few days south of a year.
This humiliating, humbling and potentially violating exam was an anniversary present of sorts. It may have been my inaugural probe by men of the Jewish faith but this wasn’t my first fertility exam.
This had been going on for a while. As far as family planning is concerned, we were more premature than, you know what. The conversation started sometime around our third date. We were determined to have children. We were destined to have children. We were catholic. We were required to have children.
It was a fertile attraction from the beginning.
She was attracted to my sperm.
I was attracted to her eggs.
On our first date she packed a little picnic and we spent hours in a park dodging the intermittent rain showers sharing family stories, our childhood highlights and our matching desires to have a big family of our own. My mother has 13 brothers and sisters; my father has eight. Each of them averages five offspring that includes my immediate tribe. On our second date we went to church and the sermon was about the virtues of a family. Be fruitful and multiply. And on the third date – we got naked. When you partake in any version of sex without the immediate goal of making babies, the Church calls it ‘wasting the seed.’
After a session of seed wasting, recklessly spilling our baby batter in every room (there were only 2) of my collegiate apartment, we rested; and that’s when she noticed it. A large mass in my left testicle. She admittedly had never felt a man’s nutsack before (my word – not hers) but she sensed something wasn’t quite right about this one. She grabbed and groped and tugged. She was studying it. Analyzing. I think you should have that looked at. She said. YOU’RE looking at it. I replied. Who else did you have in mind? She paused, dramatically: A professional. A professional what? I joked. But she wasn’t joking.
This was serious.
I had been aware of the growth for years now. I always been a bit curious about the size and shape, how it felt, how it looked, how it differed from the right one – but I was never worried. I was actually a little proud of my rather large left testicle. I held it in high regard. But as she held it in the palm of her hand and swirled it around in her fingers, I got a little concerned. This was not the way I had imagined the evening. Although the date started with me getting lucky; I ended up getting diagnosed. We were juniors at the University. I ran in a social circle where people inquired your GPA and your SAT scores but no one had ever asked about my sperm count until her.
I want to get to know your sperm.
I think you should too. Let’s think about it as a research project. I guess you can’t blame her. When you buy a car, you kick the tires, check the engine, you test-drive it. You have mechanic look under the hood. In our fledgling relationship, she was the mechanic. Spring term at the Student Health Center isn’t exactly hopping with 19 year olds exploring their future fertility. Most of the horny undergrads are trying to NOT have children. When I arrived for my appointment, I noticed colored condoms in candy dishes, flyers about abortions and posters by Planned Parenthood to support unplanned pregnancy. No one seemed to be in there to find out, how to improve their chances of getting someone knocked up. The fair-haired, mild mannered, overly anxious urologist-in-training smiled when his ice-cold hand (no glove) grabbed my balls. I winced. After a bit of groping and a few um hmm-ing, he explained he had seen this before. Not in real life, only in textbooks. He studied the mass with the same enthusiasm as Molly had. But was actually a little gentler; a little more reverence. He was actually in awe.
This is quite a beautiful specimen. He blurted out.
Well, thank you, I think.
I think I said.
He knew what was going on down there – and seemed more fascinated than concerned. I was relieved. It wasn’t going to kill me. I thought.
It’s not going to kill you. He said.
But it is killing your sperm. Which come to think of it, he said, I’m going to need. I’m going to need to look at your sperm. Semen actually. I need to test it. Now.
I explained that neither my sperm nor I were not prepared for a test. Can we come back later? We may as well do it now. He insisted. You’re here. I’m here. And with a little porn and a few minutes, I’m pretty sure they’ll show up too.
A ‘varicocele’ is an interconnected group of thick, engorged, unwieldy varicose-like veins, hence the name. The veins expand and grow inside the scrotum and wrap themselves like vines around the testicles. To the touch, it feels like a massive wad of intestines or an odd shaped spool of squishy yarn. When this network of veins – that circle the semen-manufacturing planet as if part of a sexual solar system – fill with blood the effect is a rising temperature, it becomes a microscopic microwave – a global warming of the groin. In other words, it gets really hot in there.
My sperm – it turns out – were sweating. They were hot –trapped in a little sperm sauna. By the time they got released from their steam room/Jacuzzi and catapulted into the great abyss of her sea they are already exhausted and parched. And as a result, slow. So there it was. The sperm are slow because they’re overheated. At least that was the theory. This novice Doogie Howser-like doctor told us that that the best way to reduce the heat is to reduce the blood flow and prevent the little pools of blood from forming. The thinking was, the lower the temperature, the more mobile the sperm. In the bestcase scenario, removing this mass of veins and the engorged blood tunnels would reverse the heating effect and improve the motility.
It was 1987, years before advances in fertility treatments and the proliferation of the ease and elegance of laser surgery. At the time, the only way to remove the varicocele was to cut it out. To gut the nutsack. Then like a gastric bypass like surgery– they would tie off the remaining ones – strangling them and stopping the blood flow. The surgeon simply removes a large section of the veins. It’s like weeding a garden. Then poof. Fertility. But wait, not so fast. There was a catch. There was no guarantee this would improve the motility, the count or the maturity of the sperm. The odds were 50/50 at the best. I could have it cut out and then test the sperm and hope it made a difference. The other alternative was to wait until we were trying to have children and hope for a miracle – that there was at least one little sperm that could. We could out for the hero.
The strange thing was this – we didn’t even know that we couldn’t conceive. We hadn’t tried. We hadn’t even had intercourse. But there was also the risk of waiting too long, doing irreparable damage and thus preventing us from ever having the chance. Whenever a sharp object goes anywhere near the zip code of your scrotum, balls or penis, you want to be awake for it. You want to be watching carefully. I was knocked out. Drugged. Anesthetized.
I never saw the actual blade of the knife pierce my pure white, virgin, Swedish hairless skin but the aftermath suggests a butcher at work. The incision starts just above my pelvis and heads northwest in a jagged line stopping just before my left testicle. The scar is in the ballpark of 6 inches long. Given the fact that on average, men lie about length in that arena by at least 2 inches – you do the math. But it’s there. Every time I shower, every time I have sex, every time I don’t have sex – it’s there – a tattooed reminder of the first stop in a long journey to being a father.
We were so young. We were still virgins. We weren’t engaged or betrothed, so there was no hurry to have them cut into my manhood now – certainly not before midterms.
But I had insurance and she had enthusiasm. We thought, if I had the operation by senior year, by the time we were married, my sperm would cool down to normal and speed up to above normal – I imagined a Mario Andretti like speed. Fast and Furious – the way we had sex. I don’t remember discussing it, I don’t remember agreeing to do it. I remember waking up – praying that the knife hadn’t slipped and transformed me into a version of the future Lance Armstrong. I reached down to make sure it was all still there. The next thing I remember seeing is her, Molly, by my side.
Over the next few weeks, I remember her loving me, protecting me, nursing me. She changed my bandages; she cleaned the incision. It’s true she was taking care of me; but she was also taking care of what was now clearly HER sperm. We fell in love over this whole business. But we didn’t tell anyone. It was our secret. The first of many. The jagged scar that violates the left side of my groin is a permanent bond. With our secret surgery in the rear view mirror, we moved forward with the college sweetheart script.
We got engaged.
We got married.
We moved to Manhattan.
We moved forward quickly.
We made a decision to not return to the doctor to check the sperm.
We got busy.
Besides, we didn’t really want to know. We wanted the magic of conception, not the science. We assumed the surgery was a success. We had done the right things; we took care of business, we waited till we were married to consummate and now we would be rewarded with healthy, hearty, speedy sperm. That’s how it works. Right? We were in such a hurry to start our life; we assumed our sperm would have a sense of urgency too. We tried the entire first year of our marriage to conceive. As we approached our anniversary, she decided it was time to check on the little guys.
This how I found myself jerking off into the little cup next to the menorah while looking at the panty section of an old Sears catalog.
Isaac, I really want you to see this.
Abraham showed Isaac the incision and seemed to explain to him the surgery I had undergone years ago. He seemed quite interested in what remained of the varicocle. Despite the surgery, it was there – it had never disappeared completely – but it never returned to its inflated size either. In the small dingy bathroom facing Houston Street, I stepped into my adult uniform – the blue pin striped three-piece suit and added my obligatory red power tie. (It was the 80s). I said a little prayer for all my unborn children. Abraham and Isaac watched me with great interest – I was as foreign to them as they were to me. Young, hairless, thin – a Goya for god’s sakes. I entered the thick silence of their office. Was I supposed to say something or were they? It was like how I imagined an awkward morning after would be.
At the time, it didn’t occur to me that the moment was profound, holy, ordained. In the Old Testament, Abraham is the Father of all of God’s people – having him as your fertility go-to guy has to be a good omen.
I had so many questions. About my sperm, about Jewish faith, about Jewish sperm, about my nutsack, his Torah.
The only thing I manage to ask was this: Where can I get a good bagel with creme cheese around here? He directed me to Katz Deli on the corner.
I stood outside the glass windows of the revered kosher deli in the yet to be gentrified lower east side. On that chilly, drizzly afternoon, it seemed to be something more than a restaurant, like a church or a synagogue, a place of passage. Besides, my sperm and I were hungry. So I went inside. I must have watched over a hundred different people come and go in that long, endless afternoon as I waited for the test results. A woman dragging an army of children. Two young lovers holding hands. An angry man with a hairless cat on his shoulders. Humans. They are everywhere.
As they passed in and out of the doorway on their way to life it occurred to me that we are all the same. We have the most basic thing in common.
We are all sperm and egg.
Each person. Sperm – egg. Sperm – egg. I labeled each person who passed.
There was an egg stepping into the subway.
Look – two sperm racing to catch the bus on Houston Street. Sperm holding door for egg. How did I want my eggs, the waiter asked. Fertile. I said. Did I just say that? Yes, he explained, you said fertile, I said how do you want your eggs. Over easy. I corrected myself; I’d like them over easy. We are all miracles. One in a million. A sperm and egg making another sperm and egg is not mechanical, it not just science or medicine, it’s a fucking miracle. Literally a fucking miracle. After I got the results, I stopped at a green grocer on my way home – and bought a couple bouquets of flowers– daisies – her preference. While we made love, I said a prayer to Allah and Muhammad and Jesus while I was coming inside of her. Come one little sperm you can do it. But it wasn’t in the cards. It was not to be. Not that night.
7 years, millions of slow, sweaty overheated sperm later, we remained unfertilized. Still unmothered still unfathered.
The sperm that had been so attracted to her eggs would never meet.
The hope we felt that first date, the first operation.
The hope – like the sex – slowed down until it reached a standstill and the relationship had slowed to halt. There was no tearful goodbye – no breakup scene between her eggs and my sperm – no, my sperm will miss you.
This was the unspoken loss.
My sperm were simply not fast enough for her eggs.
The thing that brought us together would eventually unravel us.
The children we so badly wanted, failed to hold us together.
My ex wife is a beautiful, kind and loyal woman. But make no mistake, she is resourceful. It didn’t take her long to find someone else’s sperm.
It’s been over 10 years since someone else’s sperm made contact with her eggs. I think I actually felt it her moment of conception; I woke up in the middle of the night after a dream – and I thought – she is fertilized.
In the dream, she was on a swing, in a white gown. A wedding dress that looked like a hospital gown – or the other way around. I was pushing her. The closer she came to me, the further away she went.
She was pregnant, glowing and beautiful.
After all we had been through, it came down to this.
She had another man’s baby. His sperm beat mine to the punch.
The first time I saw a photograph of her daughter from another man – a stranger to me – a husband to her, I gasped.
I felt a sharp pain in my groin, my scar tissue ached. It actually ached. After all the hopes and dreams, the dialogues and diatribes, the prayers and promises – after being sliced and cut and probed and jerked off and turned inside out and upside down and it was all for nada. The consolation prize is this:
I guess I finally understand what they mean when they say ‘wasting the seed.’