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The boy’s first French kiss was with a teddy bear. Her name was Melissa. She had blue fur, like shag carpet, two dimples for eyes, and a plastic one-piece nose and mouth. His brother told him, this is how it’s done. You put your tongue in their mouth and move it around. You need to know how to do it right when you get a girl. So the boy held Melissa’s head with both hands and licked the plastic slot that was Melissa’s mouth. His tongue dipped down like a hummingbird darting into the throat of a flower, slurping up nectar.
• • •
Every month, the boy had an interview with his father. His father wrote down their conversation and made a list of goals to accomplish. The father wrote, “have homework done every day by five. Get above 90 percent on the next math test.” And always, “read the Bible.”
Once, the boy’s father talked about being in graduate school. He opened one of his mile-thick textbooks filled with diagrams and equations. His father had a pad of paper on his knees and he drew what looked like a sports play, with arrows and circles and squiggly lines. The boy moved his chair so he was looking at the shapes from the same angle. His father wrote “Meiosis” in block letters, then “woman” next to a large round circle and “man” next to one of the squiggly lines. Then “sperm” and “egg.” He wrote these down in no apparent order and then he described the flagellating sperm swimming up a woman’s fallopian tubes to penetrate the egg. The boy’s father used many words that the boy didn’t know: mitochondria, flagellum, TK inhibitors, implantation, zygote. The father drew more pictures: the egg halved, then quartered, then grew into a bunch like grapes or a cluster of frog eggs. The boy understood that this was how every human being started, the proliferation of two cells dividing. But the father forgot to explain the sex part, how the sperm and the egg got to be in the same place at the same time and so for years the boy thought the sperm flew out of the man and through the air to where it entered the woman and multiplied like cancer.
• • •
Once the boy was on a playground. The playground had seesaws and monkey bars and a metal dome of welded triangles. The boy rode a donkey on a giant spring next to a plastic turtle. He was waiting for his mother to meet him halfway from school, like she usually did, sauntering up in overalls and sandals, her hair in a bun. Three teenage boys with black or grey T-shirts came up to him. They had chains on their pockets and their pants hung so low that their crotches were almost down to their knees. Their hair was long and unparted.
“Do you want to see a lizard?” one of them asked.
The boy said yes. He liked lizards. He knew that their ancestors were dinosaurs and lizards reminded him of these great ancestors, their regal heads and their bones in the Tyrrell museum that he had been to with his class. Yes, he wanted to see a lizard. They were rare in Alberta; in fact, he couldn’t remember ever seeing one out in the wild—only in interpretive centers or zoos.
The middle teenager, the one with a silver loop splitting his bottom lip, pointed to a plastic turtle, said, “I saw a lizard go under that turtle.”
The boy got off the donkey and climbed down to look. There was about a half-foot space between the gravel and the turtle, so the boy pushed some of the gravel out of the way with his hand.
The teenager said, “that’s right, go all the way under and you’ll see it.”
The boy did as he was told and went in under the turtle. He could sit up now. The turtle’s plastic shell diffused the light, making everything a pale green. “I don’t see it,” the boy said.
The teenagers were laughing. “Keep looking.”
The boy said, “I can’t see it anywhere!”
The teenagers threw rocks at the shell and the rocks made a sound like knuckles rapping a table. “It’s out here now,” one said. “Come quick!”
The boy climbed out and the sun seemed brighter than before and he looked at the feet of the boys to see if there was a lizard winding its way through the gravel, camouflaged like a chameleon or a green anole, blending into the smoky rocks. But there was no lizard, only one of the boys with his pants even lower, and a penis hanging out of his boxers, limp and hairy.
“There’s your lizard,” the teenager shouted before pulling his pants back up, a now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t trick, and they were off just as the boy saw his mother running toward them, angry-looking, her sandals thwacking her heels, and the boy thought, that was not a lizard, that was definitely not a lizard.
• • •
Grade seven, the boy took the bus to middle school. The boy’s family moved to the United States and the boy had started to learn to play the violin. The school put him in EEO: Extended Educational Opportunities. The boy still spoke Canadian; he said serviette for napkin, chesterfield for couch. Initially the boy was shy for saying these words, was embarrassed when kids would introduce him to other kids, like he was some Canadian ambassador. Two girls took it upon themselves to make him a badass. The boy had never been a badass before. One of the girls took the same bus to school. She sat one row in front of him and turned around in her seat and laid her head on her hands and asked him what it was like to live in Canada.
The boy said, “it’s colder.”
The girl said, “how cold?”
The boy said, “colder than here.” Then they stopped talking.
“We are going to make you into such a badass,” the girl said.
The boy didn’t know why, but talking to the girl was hard for him. And exciting. He had bought the jeans that the girl told him about, the ones that she said made his ass look great. He felt that this was important: a good ass to be a badass. He was glad for the jeans, too, because they were loose and when he sat down, the crotch bunched up in the front so that there was plenty of room if he got an erection. He got erections all the time now, whenever the two girls would grab him by the hands and take him to their lockers or when they hugged him between classes and he could feel their incipient breasts against his chest. And the morning. The morning on the bus was the worst. He was tired and groggy and just the vibration of the bus would set it off. That’s why, when he talked to the girl, he couldn’t say much. He was wondering if she could see his erection in the folds of his loose pants, the pants that she told him to buy, the good-ass pants.
But now they were at the school and the kids were getting off the bus, shuffling past one another, wires trailing from ears into pockets, backpacks swinging, and the girl was waiting for the boy and the boy said, “I’ll be there in a second,” because he was at full mast now and the lack of vibration wasn’t doing squat. So he picked up his violin case from where it lay at his feet. It was hard and black and plastic, shaped a little, he thought, like a penis. He held the case in front of him so that it angled up, a giant erection hiding his little one. The girl was ahead of him now and the case bumped against his good-ass jeans until he could feel the swelling starting to work its way out, and then they were moving through the glass double doors and the girl was waving to her friend and she took the boy by the hand and twirled and twirled him so that the other girl could see how good he looked in his new jeans.
• • •
Yanking your Yoda. The new Star Wars had just come out and the boy made a fist and unclenched and held his limp penis in his hand. Poor Yoda, about to be strangled. To be a Jedi, strangle him you must.
The boy made up the phrase at a friend’s house. They found a colloquial dictionary that the boys took turns reading. Masturbation wasn’t something the boy felt comfortable discussing openly; for all he knew, he was the only one of his friends who yanked his Yoda day after day. But reading the various euphemisms was somehow OK: bopping the bishop, choking the chicken, beating the meat, spanking the monkey, feeding the geese, yanking the chain, stroking the salami. The boys were prudish, came from prudish families, which made the words hilarious. Passing the book around was like what the boy imagined sharing a joint or a bottle of tequila might be like, each new euphemism adding to their mutual intoxication.
The boy’s priest had told him, warned him about his sin, the sin of Onan, self-abuse, masturbation.
But now the boy stood in front of his mirror and he felt a sickly guilt for the words: pounding the midget, spanking the plank, burping the worm, milking the lizard, doing the five-knuckle shuffle, cleaning the pipes, flogging the dolphin, punching the clown, siphoning the python, jerking the gherkin. The boy hoped the words would bring back that feeling of clutching his stomach, his breaths short and shallow, water in the corner of his eyes. Only Yoda made him smile now. There was something about the shape of his Jedi head, the peaked dome of it, the foreskin-like wrinkles on his face and his wispy curls like pubic hair that made the boy laugh so hard his abdomen was sore. The boy’s priest had told him, warned him about his sin, the sin of Onan, self-abuse, masturbation. There were consequences. Think of every sperm as the potential for life, he said. Millions of lives wasted on the ground, spilled. Would he want those lives on his hands? Those unborn souls chasing him through eternity? It would drive him mad in the afterlife, would be like being boiled alive in his own sperm. Boiled alive.
The boy thought back to the first time he had jerked his gherkin. He was young, eleven or twelve maybe, his penis not fully grown. It was at night, on the waterbed that he shared with his kid brother. He had trouble sleeping, would diddle with himself out of comfort, to help the sleep come on. He remembered the feeling the first time, a great whoosh of energy from his groin permeating his body. Nothing came out at first, no dead sperm, no souls chasing him through eternity. But gradually they came, every night, day after day, his seminal volume growing as he developed. Soon he was spurting, had to bring a towel to bed to clean up as inconspicuously as possible, the millions of sperm rising to the top, following each other up and out, like lemmings diving off a cliff. Now he was in high school, was jerking off a couple of times a day, each couple spurts adding to the vat of sperm waiting for him in the afterlife. He tried to fix this image in his mind: a huge cauldron, like the ones used in Disney cartoons, a witch’s brew where flames licked the sides and him roasting in there like a boiled cabbage. His penis wasn’t limp anymore but slightly engorged. He thought of the heat, searing heat, and his face melting like wax. His penis grew harder. The vat of semen was on fire, the flames engulfing, charring his face, and he smelled burning flesh. He was hard as a steel rod now and slowly, in spite of himself, his hand started to pump, yanking Yoda from his grave as the vat and all its contents went white hot and he felt himself, just for an instant, lifted away.
• • •
At college, late at night, the boy and his girl made lazy figure eights down landscaped medians on the way to the cathedral at the center of town. They were barely eighteen, underaged drinkers nursing their buzz with rum and Cokes. The cathedral was near the top of a hill and the boy led her around behind. He had a Navajo blanket and she wore a spaghetti-strapped top and a pair of khaki shorts that barely covered her buttocks. Behind the cathedral was a park with grass and a spectacular view and it was three o’clock in the morning and they had been talking about how they could spend all night together and all of the next day and the next and not tire of each other’s company and wasn’t that unique and great? So much more freedom than either of them had growing up. The boy put the blanket down like he was laying a bedspread and he propped himself up on one elbow with the girl still standing and he was thinking how good she looked with the lights of the cathedral behind her and her soft cream legs and the spot on her back right above her buttocks which was the only place she had allowed him to touch freely since they had been dating these two months.
The girl lay down beside him, facing him, and she said, “what are you thinking?” Always the same question whenever they were close.
He wanted to say thinking of putting his hand between her legs because his friend Travis said that’s how to get a girl hot but instead he said just how great it would be to be with you forever and the girl said that she’d been thinking the same thing. And then she looked down at the cathedral, its white lights shining up to its spires and arches, and he realized she was thinking the M-word and he was thinking sex and he wondered if talking about the M-word could get him sex if he was careful. He liked this girl, he really did, but he had a condom in his back pocket and Travis had been razzing him for a week that it had taken him so long to score.
“Here,” the boy said. “You look cold.”
He pulled the edge of the Navajo blanket over her and then he rolled her toward him so that she was lying comfortably in his arms and he pulled the other end of the blanket around him so they were like two larvae inside a cocoon. She put his arm around her and placed it on her stomach.
“I feel so safe with you,” she said.
His hand felt like it was on fire. He had a vague idea of what was below her navel, that there was hair and a hole and labia and moisture and so he rubbed her belly and put his index finger in her navel and wiggled it around some. Then, as if it were a power button turning her on, she rotated toward him and placed her hand on his cheek and opened her mouth to him. He moved his lips and let his tongue do some of the work and he tried to move his head around and brush his fingers lightly against her face like he’d seen actors do in movies. He put his hand on her shoulder blades and massaged where it met her side, just under her armpit and he slowly slid his hand over with each combination of kisses. But as soon as he felt the padded cup of her bra, she took his hand and put it on her thigh and then she rolled on top of him.
The boy was a little timid now—he didn’t want to put his hands where they weren’t wanted—but the girl was kissing him more earnestly and she had done a strange thing with her legs. They were parted over his upper thigh and as she kissed him, she pressed against him and she kissed him more quickly. He eased his thigh up against her crotch and her body became taut, like a tuned string. She moved faster now and his hand was on the back of her jeans and she pulled her face away from his so that she could breathe. He wanted her now, wanted every part of himself inside her and he saw on her face not desire but a look of confusion or surprise, her eyes open so that he could see the milky whites even with just the low light of the cathedral behind her. Her hair hung down and a few strands were wet and caught against the side of her face like the loop of a question mark.
Then he stopped. Abruptly he stopped. There was a firefly-sized light directly to the side of him that shook and flickered as it approached. The boy stopped and the girl smoothed his face with her hand and said, “what’s wrong?” And he said, “shhh.” She rubbed his chest and bent down to kiss him and she squeezed his thigh with her legs.
“I think there’s a guy coming,” he said.
She untangled her legs and slid down alongside him and put her head on his chest just as the light licked the edges of the Navajo blanket and dazzled their eyes. “Sorry to bother you,” the man said. “I’m going to have to ask you to move.” He was gone almost as quickly as he came. He explained how it looked. The church didn’t like people making out on the lawn.
Back on the median, on the way to their dorm rooms, the boy and his girl wrapped the blanket around themselves like they were a couple of refugees. It was a while before either of them spoke. The boy was embarrassed and still incredibly horny but the girl shrugged him off every time.
Finally, she said, “we just had sex with our clothes on.” It was like the finger of God had come down and named it.
But the boy said, “I don’t think so.”
• • •
The boy, married, seven years last April. He was lying in bed depressed. His wife lay on her side with her hand on his chest. They had failed their first round of in vitro fertilization last month and they had two embryos in storage for the next. So here they were, the failed parents, in the eye of the storm, two weeks after his wife’s period, waiting.
The boy remembered last month, the nights when he gave his wife progesterone shots. He would swab the bit of skin behind her hip bone with rubbing alcohol and push a needle through the fatty tissue and into the muscle. His wife sucked air through her teeth. Sometimes it hurt more than others. What did it feel like? There were little red pricks all over her hip after a full month of injections. Gave another meaning to needling your wife. The boy needled her every night, “shooting up” they called it, all because the boy had problems, below-the-belt problems, whirligig sperm and too few of them.
There was a feeling of possibility and sadness to their sex. A couple of infertile adults, humping like rabbits to try and prevent their own extinction.
Now, in bed, depressed, the boy thought of Dr. Zimmerman during their first meeting, before they signed the papers and froze the sperm and bought the progesterone-in-oil injections and shot up night after night.
First, the pitch: a story that Dr. Z had probably told to hundreds of aspiring parents but was new to the boy and his wife. “You don’t have a lot of good-quality sperm,” he said. Then he used a persuasive metaphor, a metaphor that the boy never forgot and then repeated word for word to his family, to his close friends, to some of his co-workers who tittered when they heard the word sperm: you are a like a one-man army trying to invade China. Sure, there is the theoretical possibility that you’ll be successful, but you would have a lot better chance if you had a whole army.
Then the stories.
The first was a couple in their 40s and a man with a zero sperm-count. “Zero,” Dr. Z said. They did a sperm extraction directly from the testes and came up with five blobs of bio-matter that may have been healthy sperm at some point. They injected these into the woman’s eggs and surprise! Produced two embryos. They transferred both and the woman got pregnant, gave birth to a baby boy. “The closest thing I’ve ever seen to immaculate conception,” Dr. Z. said.
The second was less optimistic. In this one, a woman was gifted with multiple eggs, a whole farm of them, extracted from her ovaries by the dozens, the Follistim hormones doing their job. Her partner had several good sperm injected one by one into the eggs, fifteen healthy grade-A embryos, three transferred for good measure, the others frozen, and not a single take. They did it again and again, month after month and gave up after the money ran out. So, there’s a spectrum of failure and success.
But for the boy and his wife, everything had been about average, middle of the bell curve. How many eggs? Ten, about average. How many embryos? Five, about average. They had a 40 percent chance, he knew, about average, for getting pregnant. This had made them hopeful. When his wife had her period the next month, he took a drive out into the country in the middle of a thunderstorm and cried, dripping tears and snot onto the steering wheel. Now they had another month to wait before trying again, another couple embryos on ice.
Lying there, the boy wondered if his wife was sleeping or deep in thought, dreaming perhaps like he often did about their unborn children. The idea of a child was still very abstract to the boy; he’d dreamed about his wife’s growing abdomen, ultrasounds with bat-winged fetuses or premature deaths. She birthed a tow-headed winged angel, triplet boys, a body-snatcher seed pod, and once, a Popple covered in green goo.
So the boy was surprised when his wife turned and put her hand on his chest and played with the hair there. Her hands were warm, supple, like the hands of a child. She touched his stomach and the boy could feel the familiar pull in his groin, that tingling in his penis as it became engorged with blood. He wasn’t sure he wanted this. There was something sad about it, desperate, like a one-night stand or a game of truth-or-dare. She touched him now in earnest and he felt his hardness in her hand.
The boy was still reluctant. Sometimes when the boy was very turned on he thought of calamities like burning houses or muzzled terriers in animal shelters or dentists giving root canals to try and push his mind from the sex, so it would delay his orgasm until his wife was coming so long and loud that it was all he could do to keep from giving in.
Tonight, he thought, dead baby, dead baby, dead baby. He started to go partly limp, like a wilted carrot. His wife pumped him for a while. Dead babies in burn barrels, dead babies in gutters, nannies pushing dead babies in prams. His wife shifted in bed, went down and kissed him from his shaft to his glans. Her entreaties were so sincere, so tender that he found himself following her lead, moving the way she wanted him to in spite of the images he had conjured in his mind. The boy heaped all the dead babies into a mound, one for every one of his whirligig sperm, mouths agape, frozen in anguish, then pushed them away until they disappeared in a pinprick on the horizon of his mind. He let her pull him in on top of her and she came quickly and the boy moved, rocking and rhythmic, a man trying his best to give a woman a gift. She put her hands on his buttocks and he pushed in deeper and the woman groaned and said “oh, oh.” There was a feeling of possibility and sadness to their sex. How many times had they both let themselves be duped? A couple of infertile adults, humping like rabbits to try and prevent their own extinction. The boy pushed harder, the woman groaned softly, gulping breaths of air. Infertile adults, just a couple of oversexed and baby-less yuppies in their empty home with their empty cars, walking clichés, really, humping in futility. The boy thought, Baby Gap, pastel blues and pinks, car seats, nursing bras, mobiles, Gerber, nipples sore from teething, all images in miniature like a diorama of the first two years of life. He kept these in his mind until he was groaning too and he felt his body go tight and warm for a few moments and then slack. He lay on top of his wife, propped up slightly by his arms, not wanting to leave that place inside her. But she was crying. The boy moved, shocked by his wife’s depth of feeling, his wife who never cried, who only said I love you if he said it first. His wife touched his shoulder, almost pawing at it, while she wept.
And as he lay there, confused yet happy, he thought how Dr. Z got it wrong. He imagined his sperm mixing with his wife’s cervical mucus, struggling into her and swimming through the uterus. Over the next day millions of sperm would die, a literal genocide of his own genetic code. But one sperm would make it up to the ampullary portion of his wife’s fallopian tubes where it would meet an egg, a full round egg in a nimbus of light. And that egg, in a process that nobody quite understands, would invite that one exhausted spermatozoon in, not like a warrior bent on invading China all by himself, but like a meeting between two wounded travelers, two souls who had been alone for so long, wanting to share some news, a chain letter telling the endless story of themselves, saying look, look how far we have come.
Eric Freeze is a Canadian author and Assistant Professor of English at Wabash College. His stories and translations have appeared or are forthcoming in The Southern Review, New Ohio Review, and The Fiddlehead.
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