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Authors: Michael Lewis

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BOOK: Home Game
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operating table, staring at the back of a nurse scrubbing her hands, I was struck by the possibility that, in addition to its other challenges, a vasectomy might be a socially awkward experience. “Do you need to empty your bladder?” asked the nurse, who clearly found hospital English the safest language in which to address a stranger's genitals. The clinic walls were undecorated, save for a lone medical drawing of the male sex organ, flayed to reveal its sober inner logic.

“I don't think so,” I said.

“Okay,” she said. “I'll be right back to give you a shaving,” and left to do whatever nurses do before they apply razors to testicles. Two months earlier, in the pre-interview, during which it was determined that whatever I may have been told by my wife or the state police, I was under no legal obligation to be sterilized, the doctor explained that California law required a cooling-off period between consultation and operation. On that chilly afternoon, he told me many other things about vasectomies but somehow failed to mention that they began with a good ball-shaving from a woman who didn't look you in the eye, or say a word beyond the bare minimum.

The nurse returned, wearing the same blank expression but now waving a new disposable razor, which struck me as a cheap tool for a dear job. She worked quickly and joylessly, like a Marine barber. I wanted to be helpful but there wasn't much to do, except to hope she didn't flinch. In the vast silence, insane thoughts flitted across my disturbed mind.

Is it possible to shave something off by mistake?

Jesus Christ…What if I get an erection?

Would it be my last?

Maybe I should pop one off, just for old times' sake.

There are times when the mind is a dangerous place to be, and this was one of them. The ceiling, like the floor, was speckled linoleum. I stopped thinking and counted speckles until, at length, she finished. Chucking the disposable razor, she said, “The doctor will be here in twenty minutes.”

The interesting thing about twenty minutes is how many more they can seem to be. One of the reasons I found myself on this table was that I hadn't imagined what exactly was going to be done here. I now had time to consider the matter and ask myself a few obvious questions. For example:
What the hell am I doing here?
In theory, the answer was at hand. My wife wanted me to be here, and it seemed too transparently selfish to refuse. She'd endured three pregnancies, suffered the pain and indignity of three childbirths, changed most of the diapers, gotten up most of the mornings, and, on top of it all, given me the leisure to keep a journal of complaints about the inconveniences of fatherhood. The time had come for Daddy to take one for the team.

This explanation had sufficed—right up to this moment. Now, with the doctor's scalpel just minutes away, it was drowned out by a new sound, of a grown man screaming:


I mean, why am I really here, stretched out and hairless and exposed and not knowing what to say to the mute lady scraping away south of the border?
I now asked myself.
What's the meaning of this outrage?
This operation wasn't about birth control. It was about life control. I should have fought for my reproductive rights, like other men. A friend of mine, when his wife suggested he might go and get himself gelded, had just laughed and said, “What if I want a trophy wife one day?” Another had declined his wife's invitation to a beheading by saying, “What if you and the kids go down in a plane crash?” Other men I knew refused on the grounds of rumors they'd heard about the operation's side effects. “I have a friend who had it done and he couldn't feel his dick for
ten months
,” a guy at a dinner party told me knowledgeably. “After that I said, ‘No way.'”

And these were men who lived in
Berkeley, California
! Imagine the conversation in the red states, where men were men. One day someone is going to interview a statistically representative cross section of the population and write the definitive sociological treatise on the hidden debate inside the post-reproductive American marriage about whose loins were meant to be surgically closed for business. As that treatise has not yet been written, we are left to guess at its future conclusions. My own guess is that wives across America are seeking, OPEC-like, to control the flow of their husbands' sperm while those husbands are struggling to keep the pipelines open. There's a war being waged for control over a precious resource, but without correspondents. The only news comes from couples in which the male already has been neutered: These people of course always piously claim that it was never really an issue and the husband honestly never wanted anything so much as to become an It.

Alone on the operating table, I got myself well and truly worked up. Then, from nowhere came another voice. “You're being a dick,” it said.

Sweet Reason had intervened. “You are not being fair,” she said. “You agreed to do this and she never really pressed you that hard, except to remind you every two months that you had promised to do it, and to ask if you had scheduled the appointment.” I began to list all the good things I could think of about being sterile:

  1. If my wife gets pregnant, I'll know for sure that I am not the father.
  2. If some other woman gets pregnant, I can't convincingly be blamed for it.

Maybe it was my inability to think up a third item for the list, or perhaps it was the bright red flayed penis on the wall beside me, but now a new notion popped into my head:
Shaved goolies and all, I could leap off the table before the doctor arrived. My car was a mere forty yards away. Forty yards I could still dash, intact. A Man In Full. To seem heroic, while at the same time maximizing sympathy for myself afterward, I'd driven myself to the doctor's office and was driving myself home. No one would ever know.

The doctor entered.

He raised my dressing gown, took a perfunctory let's-see-what-we-have-here peek. We exchanged pleasantries. If he had any sense of the mental turmoil he'd interrupted, he hid it well. “There's something I've been wondering about,” I said. “But you have to promise me, if I ask, you will tell me the truth.”

“I promise,” he said.

“Have you ever opened that door thinking there was a patient in here and found no one on this table?”

He laughed. “You mean does anyone ever chicken out?”


“No. Not once,” he said. “But it's funny. About one in four—no, maybe more like one in three—schedule the operation and never show up.”

Yes, I agreed, that was a riot. Then it wasn't: There was a needle in my scrotum. Scrotums were not designed with needles in mind. But this doctor worked quickly. So quickly, in fact, that I couldn't help but suspect he knew he must work quickly, or find himself chasing down the highway after his patients. My hands were now clenched and tearing at the sanitary paper bedspread. “It'll only sting for a minute,” he said. “After this, if you experience any really sharp pain, you should tell me.”

But there was no more sharp pain: For the next thirty minutes, I felt instead a strange pulling and pinching, along with an occasional heavy stomach wrenching sensation, as if he were seeing, just for fun, what would happen if you applied 170 pounds of pressure on a single male testicle. A vasectomy feels half the time as if you are being kneaded into a loaf of bread and the other half of the time as if you are being sewn into a quilt. And that is the spirit in which the doctor worked: of a man either baking or knitting. He chatted as he sewed, or baked as he chatted, and after a stretch I realized that I'd become so wholly focused on being ready to shriek at the top of my lungs at the first sharp pain that I had failed to keep up my end of the conversation.

“Tell me something else,” I said, interrupting whatever he was saying.

“What's that?”

“Do you have children?” I asked.


“Do you intend to have more?”


“Have you had this done to yourself?”

“No,” he said, with a slight pause. “I haven't.”


He laughed. “You don't know the details,” he said. But he was done, and so were we. “Okay, you can get dressed,” he said. “But be careful.” He left the room. I rose from the table, and wobbled. Glued by sweat to my backside, from neck to thigh, was a paper bedsheet that came away only in strips and patches as I picked at it. I stepped into my pants, hobbled to my car, and drove myself home. A hero to my wife. A traitor to my sex. A thoroughly modern American guy.

Walker is asleep and the girls are in their bunk bed, Tabitha reads to Quinn from a book about puberty. This might seem premature—she only just turned nine—but it's breathtakingly shrewd. If you introduce the general concepts to a child early enough you might screw them up for life, but you also catch them before they know enough to be embarrassed or to make you squirm. Sprouting hair, sprouting body parts, foul body odors, gooey emissions—all are facts to be absorbed, and even things to be hoped for. Every morning as they brush their teeth, Quinn gives Dixie a powerful lecture on who gets hair where and when; and who smells badly in which place and why. Neither professor nor pupil giggles or squirms or exhibits so much as a trace of self-consciousness. This knowledge transfer is not at all as I remember it; it's all so grown-up and even un-American; they might as well be French. Yesterday Quinn insisted on being taken to buy brassieres. Seeing the flat, cupless pile, Dixie asked seriously, “Did Quinn catch puberty?”

From her position on the bottom bunk Dixie has learned enough to feel left out. When I come to read to her she reaches for a book called
Mommy Laid an Egg. Mommy Laid an Egg
is a cartoon to explain to small children where babies come from, so their parents never have to. In
Mommy Laid an Egg
, Daddy has pods, and Mommy has a pod receptacle. Daddy inserts pods into Mommy's pod receptacle and a baby grows. But
Mommy Laid an Egg
goes further, for it shows Mommy receiving Daddy's pods not just gleefully, but with reckless abandon, eighteen different ways from Sunday. It shows pictures of Mommy and Daddy humping away on a skateboard, for instance, and other pictures of Mommy and Daddy banging away on the kitchen counter. It's a little shocking and at the same time reassuring that this sort of thing can still get past the censors. After all, they removed the ashtray from
Goodnight Moon

At any rate, none of this seems to have the slightest effect on Dixie. Instead she dwells, at length, on the cartoon of the birth itself. It shows the stick-figure baby emerging from a stick-figure Mommy, but because they are nothing but stick figures the path of exit remains a little hazy.

“I'm not going to have any babies,” she says finally.

“Why not?” asks Tabitha from above.

“I don't want anything coming out of my butthole,” says Dixie, and yawns.

“It doesn't come out of your butthole,” says Quinn knowingly—but then, she now says everything knowingly. “It comes out your

Dixie's falling asleep and Quinn is just starting a new chapter on body odor, which is apparently so gripping that she will spend the next few days convinced that she has it. I leave them to it, but the moment I'm gone Quinn turns to Tabitha and asks, “Why did Daddy have a bisectomy?”

“It's called a vasectomy,” says Tabitha.

“No, it's not,” says Quinn

“What's a bisectomy?” asks Dixie.

-ectomy,” says Tabitha wearily.

“Yeah,” says Quinn, “but the reason Daddy's pods don't work anymore is because he had a

Alas, Daddy's pods do not lend themselves to such definitive statements. As the surgeon who'd done the job explained, a vasectomy doesn't end anything. It merely cuts off the new supply of live sperm; there's apparently a holding tank teeming with the reckless critters that needs to be emptied, and emptying it can take—well, that depends. A friend fresh from the operating table was told by his doctor he needed to have sex six times before he even bothered being tested for sterility and he burst out, “That's a whole year!” My own doctor had skipped the small talk and told me to wait six months, then go into a lab and take a semen test.

That was seven months ago. For seven months I've had this scene playing in the back of my mind: face to face with a perfect stranger, I need to explain to him—but probably her—that I've come to produce, and to hand over, my sperm. What happens next? How does this conversation play out? I wasn't sure except it was clear that the easy way out—generating the specimen in the comfort and privacy of one's home—wasn't an option, unless one was prepared to pack it just so into an ice chest and race it over to the lab within the hour. Home manufacture wasn't recommended. So how, exactly, did this business work?

As it happened I was scheduled for a checkup with my regular doctor, and so used it as an excuse to wait and hear what he had to say about it. “I had that vasectomy we talked about!” I said cheerfully as he took my blood pressure.

“How did it go?”

“Hard to say,” I said. Then, as casually as possible, “How do they collect that sperm sample anyway?”

“You just go to the lab and they give you a cup,” he said.

“Just like that?”

“Just like that.”

“They don't do anything to—uh—help you out?”

“You mean do they provide you with a woman?” he exclaimed, with a great heaving guffaw, loudly enough to be heard up and down the hallway.

“No, of course not!”

“Then what do you mean?” he asked.

I obviously didn't want to say what I meant. What I meant was that no one could really be expected to walk into some office and tell a complete stranger that he needed not only a place to jerk off, but a cup to do it in. There are limits, even in America, even in 2008. I assumed there had to be a less conspicuous way to handle this problem.

“It just strikes me as a little socially awkward,” I said.

“Here,” he said—and he wrote out a request for a blood test. “Just take this in and have the semen work done the same time as the blood work.”

And so it is that I find myself pedaling my mountain bike over to the nearest offices of Quest Diagnostics, next door to the hospital where all of my children were born. My sweaty palms clutch two forms, one for the blood (the cover), the other for the sperm (the mission). It'll be quick, I tell myself, like a shot. People do it every day. There must be some obvious protocol.

There isn't. What there is, instead, is a small room full of women. Most of them sit at a safe distance in chairs ringing the room, reading three-month-old copies of
magazine, but a few linger around the front desk. The front desk offers no private space; it's just a desk, with another woman behind it. And not a reassuringly sexless battleship of a woman; a shapely and pretty woman, who looks as if she might never have been on the receiving end of a sperm sample. Worse, the women closest to her desk are not waiting their turn but just waiting. Loitering. Seeing what's up.

“Can I help you?” asks the pretty young woman behind the desk.

I can hear the rustling of
s; I can feel the ladies behind me taking an interest in my case. Already I'm sweating from the bike ride. I also have failed to remove my bicycle helmet. I resemble, perhaps, a bike messenger. With a special delivery.

“I need a blood test,” I say casually. I hand her the form and, as I do, imagine the ladies behind me losing interest. Then, as the lady behind the desk looks over the blood work form, I say quickly, “Also this.” I push across the doctor's formal request for the scoop on my semen. She looks it over, and motions to a room behind her. “In there for the blood test,” she says discreetly. “For the other you'll need this.” She hands me a plastic cup and a leaflet. “You don't do that here. You take it over to our office around the corner.”

I'd underestimated her. She was clearly an old pro at this. In a stroke she made it easier than I'd ever hoped. No titters; no meaningful eye contact; no embarrassing words—words like “sperm” or “masturbate.” I wasn't marched off before a crowd into some public chicken chokin' chamber in which I would be compelled to produce my own seed while strangers with X-ray vision swarmed outside. Everything was on the leaflet, in more or less these words:




I gave blood with gusto, then, little cup in hand, marched out into the street and back onto my bike. Only then did it strike me that there was a single unresolved issue: how to get the sample into the cup. Surely that question would answer itself at the second office. The kind and thoughtful and sensitive people of Quest Diagnostics had thought of everything; they, like I, wanted only to minimize the intimacy of our dealings. There'd be some…private place. But then I arrive at the second office.

This second office has much in common with the first—more old copies of
magazine, more strange women, another stranger behind another desk—but lacks something the other had: a bathroom. I cast in vain around the ground floor of the six-story building, then waste ten minutes riding the elevator in search of a private bathroom. At every floor I get off and march the halls. These other floors indeed have bathrooms, but they're locked and reserved for patients of the various doctors. Each door I yank more frantically than the last, but none so much as budge. I consider opening one of the dark wooden doors to a doctor's private offices and asking for a key, but think better of it. I'm not a patient. People might ask questions.

Now I'm back out on the street, back on my bike, plastic cup in hand. No way I'm going back to the first office with the sad little cup and asking the pretty woman behind the desk to use her bathroom: that would be mortifying and might even violate the Quest Diagnostic rules. I'm handling this myself. Around and around the neighborhood I cycle, scouting locations. The streets of Berkeley were built to accommodate many interest groups—pedestrians, wheelchair riders, cyclists—but apparently no one gave a thought to my perverse own.

Then I spot the parking garage.

It's full; the sign says so. Full is good: no one is going to stumble in looking for a place to park. With no one entering, the only risk is someone exiting—but it's the middle of the afternoon and the doctors and nurses who have no doubt parked here are still working. It's dark and peaceful and quiet as a graveyard. I find an especially large SUV and wheel my bike between its front bumper and a concrete wall. Only then does it occur to me:


This thought was quickly followed by another:


There are those, I am aware, who would find this thought erotic. Happily, I am not among them. This wasn't going to happen. I cycled back to the first building, where I'd noticed there was an unattended lobby where I could sit and think things over. For the next ten minutes I sat on the green leatherette sofa beside an elderly woman who appeared to be blind. Neither of us said a word. A Google search of the matter had revealed that some huge percentage of men who undergo vasectomies never bother to show up for a test to determine if the thing was a success. We know our strengths. We don't do well in these situations.

At length a hospital maintenance person passes through the lobby. Dangling from his belt appear to be about sixty-five keys. He walks purposefully down the long hall, and, after fiddling for many seconds to find the right key, opens a door. I race down the hall after him and put my ear to the unmarked door. Nasty bathroom sounds! There, outside, I wait, for three, four, then five minutes. Finally, with a flush and a roar, he emerges.

“You want to use it?” he asks.

“I do.”

“It's supposed to be for staff,” he says.

“That's okay,” I say.

“Take your chances,” he says, and lets me enter the cold, cramped, tiled room. It has the charm of a new mausoleum. The odor, too. I lock the door behind me and stare at the ceiling. Self-abuse: never was that term of art more apt.

Twenty minutes later, I cycle back to the second Quest Diagnostics office, toss the sad little cup at a jolly man behind the counter, and flee.

A week later I receive an e-mail from my regular doctor. “The blood test came out great,” he writes. “Congratulations.” Another week passes, then another, but I fail to hear from the surgeon who performed the vasectomy. Finally, I pick up the phone and, feeling a bit as though I'm calling Harvard after the acceptances have been sent out to find out why I haven't received mine, call him. The woman on the other end of the line, like all his office staff, is Chinese. Her English is broken.

“What your name?” she asks.


“Lewis. You wait minute.”

I wait a minute. I hear rustling, confusion, a muffled conversation.



“You have live sperm!”

I think:
She's speaking a language not her own
. But no matter how I reprocess the sentence, I can't turn it into “Your operation was a success.”

“What does that mean?” I ask.

“I just tell you! You have live sperm! You have live sperm!”

“Yes, but what does that
?” I ask.

“Use protection!”

“Are you saying that the operation didn't work?”

I could almost hear her thinking what she'd been told to say, and not say. “Well,” she finally says, “operation not working now!”

“Can I speak to the doctor?”

“Doctor with patient.”

“I need to talk to him.”

“He with patient!”

“I need to talk to him.”

“You want doctor to call you?”

I did. And he didn't, for hours. In those hours I came privately to terms with what had just happened. A terrible practical joke. A botched execution. A crime against humanity. Alone and entirely pathetic, I moped around my office and then set off on the day's errands.

BOOK: Home Game
2.22Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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