The Loop-bound Purple Line car is filled with Tuesday faces, some staring at their phones, some gazing out the window as the Chicago skyline grows closer. I am on this elevated train to masturbate.
Not actually here on the train, in a creepy, arrest-this-guy way. I am bound for my appointment in the andrology department on the eighth floor of a downtown building.
You probably do not know what andrology is. I didn’t before this train ride. This word-processing program assumes I have made an error. But andrology is alive and well. It is an offshoot of urology. The andrologist is the person who addresses the male side of fertility challenges. Today, my calendar has a date with a “semen analysis.”
Mr. Enkoff, the teacher who guided me through sex education in seventh grade, never mentioned anything about semen analysis. He had already done the evaluation for each of us: Our semen was a powerful and potent weapon, and it would automatically get a woman pregnant. If you have sex, all the books and videos implied, you ruined your life because you would have to take care of someone else’s.
It was all a lie. At this point in my 34-year-old life, my wife and I have been trying everything to start a family. We are having sex. She is peeing on sticks. When blinking smiley faces are appearing on those sticks, we are having more sex. We are taking dozens of vitamins. Sex is no longer a magical journey to an orgasm. It is a job. And we are failing to earn a paycheck.
We aren’t the only ones coming up short. Infertility affects up to 15 percent of couples worldwide, according to the World Health Organization. I have been lost in a maze of searches that reveal doomsday headlines about falling sperm counts that could spell the end of the human race, building anxiety around a question already weighing on my brain: What if we really can’t have kids? Up to this point, I hadn’t really given it much thought. It always seemed like a natural point of progression in life, and suddenly, it might not be in the cards.
Some of our friends have informed us that they are “praying for us.” That is something people do for comfort: Confronted with hard realities, they reflect on God’s plan. Well, if there is a God up there, he or she made plans for me to have some alone time in Suite 810 in the 600 block of North Lake Shore Drive.
“I have an appointment for 12:30,” I say to the receptionist with a nose ring. “I’m a bit early.”
The receptionist must sit in this windowless office five days each week, giving courtesy smiles to a cast of men who need to have their sperm counted or frozen or tested for diseases, or whatever else you can do to the sticky liquid.
She leads me to the Room, which is approximately 8 feet from her desk. The Room feels like a soulless studio apartment minus the bed. A fan is purring to offer a layer of white noise. There is a sink, a television from 1983, a chair, and an arsenal of back issues of Penthouse, Hustler, and Playboy magazines. They look weathered, like your friend’s oldest brother handed them down to your friend’s middle brother, and then to your friend, who shared them with you.
The receptionist hands me a cup. “When you’re done,” she says, “you’ll fill out this paper and place the cup in this receptacle.”
It’s time to get to it. I need an aid. The magazines are not an option. They have been held by the hands of a million men, and I am a proud germaphobe.
Instead, I look at my phone. The world wide web was invented to host pornography, and I’m confident that I’m just a few clicks away from images—still or moving—that can transport me from the Room into the erotic world of endless fantasies. But the information age has failed me: AT&T’s network is not designed to send a signal through the walls of this building.
I look around for Wi-Fi, but the only signage is a list of instructions that advise guests to “not use lotion,” “clean yourself up when finished,” and a range of other reminders on how the world of medicine prefers you to masturbate. Should I open the door to ask for the Wi-Fi password? Would that be weird? Yes. Yes, it would.
I turn to a DVD player and a stack of four cases. The titles are scribbled in permanent marker on the burned discs. I flash back to seventh grade when Cameron Cooper passed me a VHS with “The Show” etched in Sharpie on the side. At the same time that Mr. Enkoff was showing us instructional videos on body parts, Cam had access to footage with those body parts in action. Twenty-two years later, I am still watching bootlegged adult films. Time does not move, no matter what anyone tells you.
I land on “Construction Worker, Female.” The receptionist is a chip shot outside the door, and I have a ping of panic that the movie will begin with a deafening roar of the oohs and ahhs that provide the dialogue for a classic like this one. Thankfully, someone—a past guest, or perhaps the receptionist herself—turned the volume down. The movie is appropriately titled, and I am at a construction site in 1987 that managed to hire a strikingly beautiful blond woman to help build a home. But when you’re building a home, you need a break. The natural way to enjoy that break is, of course, sex in multiple positions in the trailer of a silver pickup truck.
Aim directly into the cup, the sign reads. I think of the adage of “You miss all the shots you don’t take.” But what if you actually miss the shots you do take? And what if the pressure to perform makes me unable to perform at all? I do not want to come back here. I have never, in all my days, focused this hard. It lands.
Despite being able to leave the cup in the drawer, the andrology department has not made the close of this visit anonymous. I open the door for another encounter with the receptionist.
“I’m all set,” I say with the immediate understanding that some words are better left unspoken.
The bill is $255. As I hand over my credit card, I want to tell her that this portion would be better placed at the beginning. A prepay semen analysis checkout experience. I didn’t want to touch those magazines, so I really can’t see why she wants to swipe my credit card now.
The touching is only part of the oddity of the transaction. Timing weighs on us, too, as the payment routes through the maze of the financial system to approve my charge as we wait in agonizing silence.
This hilarious awkwardness will soon be replaced by a blanket of anxiety. I will return home. My wife and I will laugh about my morning, but we will continue to think about the question that hangs over every couple who goes through this process: Whose fault is it? Diagnosing infertility creates an unfair elephant in the room, where it somehow feels like you should blame each other for not having a baby the same way you might blame each other for forgetting to pick up the ingredients for dinner.
My wife is bearing the heaviest piece of the burden. She is having her blood drawn regularly to evaluate levels of hormones. She is going to acupuncture. She is listening to a doctor in a bow tie tell her that even if she can get pregnant, it will be a “geriatric pregnancy.” Meanwhile, this is the easiest day I have had in a long time. I am not at work. Instead, I’ve just done the thing that I’ve been pretty good at since I was 12 years old, and it took me around five minutes.
If the 34-year-old me could speak to the 37-year-old me, I could get a preview of our upcoming journey. The “journey” is how a lot of people in the fertility specialty realm talk about the process. It makes it sound like a fun road trip to California where you learn a lot about yourself in a Kerouac-esque departure to leave it all behind. My wiser self would tell me:
Your semen is fine. You two will go through three IUIs—intrauterine inseminations—which are like a game of darts where a nurse will shoot your semen from a wand and try to land a bull’s-eye inside your wife. These will fail. Throwing darts is difficult. You will decide it’s time for IVF—in vitro fertilization—and opt to seek treatment at the Holy Grail of Baby-Making in a clinic just south of Denver that has helped more than 50,000 babies become made-in-the-laboratory miracles. You will spend time with the head of the practice who could get rid of the M.D. acronym and simply rename himself the Vagina Whisperer. You will go through four rounds of IVF and will spend a decent chunk of time in the Colorado clinic’s version of the Room. You will be significantly more impressed with their DVD library. When you’re at home, your kitchen will look like a pharmaceutical business, stacked with boxes of Menopur, Cetrotide, Gonal, and a host of other drugs designed to defeat diminishing ovarian reserve—the medical condition that will be attached to my wife’s file. She will give herself shots with massive syringes twice each day. You will try to give her some of those shots and will pass out. It will remind you that she is an exponentially stronger human than you will ever be. Some nights, the two of you will laugh at the absurdity of it all. Some nights, you will talk about other friends who have gotten pregnant, and you will feel a tinge of jealousy. Some nights, you will cry and stress and feel like absolute shit and want to stop spending thousands of dollars on the whole process.
And one day, in the spring of 2021, in the midst of a pandemic when the world is falling apart, it will actually work.
For now, though, it’s just me. The only person I can talk to is the receptionist. I smile. She doesn’t. I can’t blame her. I wonder how many other classic cinema experiences have featured the lead in Construction Worker, Female. I wonder if Mr. Enkoff is still teaching at Northside Middle School. If so, I have a few additions for the curriculum.