Splayed on the 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.
"OK," 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 time's 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 20 minutes."
The interesting thing about 20 minutes is how many more they can seem to be. One of the reasons I found myself on this table is 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 write many articles complaining 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:
THEY'RE GOING TO CUT A HOLE IN MY JOHNSON!!!
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 10 months,"a guy at a dinner party told me, knowledgably. "After that I said, 'No way.' "
And these were men who lived in Berkeley, Calif.! 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:
- If my wife gets pregnant, I'll know for sure that I am not the father.
- If some other woman gets pregnant, I can't mistakenly 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: Flee! Shaved goolies and all, I could leap off the table before the doctor arrived. My car was a mere 40 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 bed spread. "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 30 minutes, I felt instead a strange pulling and pinching, along with an occasional, heavy stomach wrenching pushing sensation, as if he was 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.
"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. "OK, 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 bed sheet 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.