Peter and Sonja slouched in the audio-visual room of the vasectomy clinic, giggling like sixth graders. Sonja wished there was a sink with paper towels, so she could make spitballs. The movie featured a barbecuing man in a red-checkered apron who had had a vasectomy on Friday and was well enough to grill a T-Bone that very night.
“This is incredibly stupid,” Sonja’s lips tickled Peter’s ear. He swatted at it as though a mosquito had been nibbling on it.
“Are you actually taking this seriously?” she yelled above the volume. “Don’t you get how ludicrous this is?”
Decades later, whenever Sonja saw a man barbecuing—at a church picnic or at a county fair—the grainy footage came flooding back, along with the jowly face of the man in the red-checkered apron, jousting with the sinewy steak.
Sonja’s biological clock had started going haywire around her thirty-sixth birthday. It seemed to change its mind every week. Some days she fantasized that she was pulling out its springs with her teeth. She had gotten pretty good at silencing it. She and Peter had agreed, in peremptory fashion, that they didn’t want to disrupt their mojo with a screaming, pooping infant.
They had met in their early thirties, and had a two-year relationship consisting of vacations to Montreal, Jamaica, and Mexico. For most of the third year they rented a chintzy yellow shack with a pump that stuck whenever Sonja was in the shower. Later, they bought and rebuilt a pair of falling-down cottages, moved into one, and got married, in that order. They had driven Peter’s ’66 Austin Healy Sprite to the wedding, trailing a string of tin cans. A wise minister-cum-Tarot reader in a lavender graduation gown had performed the ceremony. The ashen faces of Sonja’s orthodox Jewish parents cast a funereal mist over the inn’s already foggy deck during the recitation of their handwritten wedding vows. Life was good—why throw a monkey wrench (much less a monkey) into it?
After the film’s warbling soundtrack trailed off, they were escorted to a small, calamine-colored room. Dr. Blank, a nondescript fifty-something man in a white lab coat, squelched into the room on crepe soled shoes. His face bore no expression. Sonja couldn’t make out a single laugh line around his mouth. He began to explain the nuts and bolts of the vasectomy in a low monotone. Had his voice been a patient, the EKG would have shown a horizontal line.
“Have you carefully considered the implications of this procedure?” Dr. Blank asked. “We’re working on a reversal technique, but as of now, it’s not guaranteed. You’ve seen the movie, so you know how we do the operation.”
“It seems pretty straightforward,” Peter offered.
“It’s a very serious issue. You look like two healthy, intelligent people who would probably make good parents. You must be very sure of your decision.” He excused himself, saying, “I’ll be right back.”
“Can you believe this guy? I’d like to prick him with a pin to see if he bleeds,” Sonja said. “I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore.”
Blank returned, carrying a mysterious cardboard carton. He set it down on the exam table. “Do you have any questions?” he asked.
Sonja and Peter shook their heads. Sonja waited for some sign of a pulse. She hated the thought of this robotic Blando snipping away at Peter, no matter how basic the operation was supposed to be. Peter spoke first.
“We’ve talked about how we don’t want to have kids, and we’re really alright with it. We know lots of couples in the same boat. We want to get on with our lives, travel, maybe work on the road. We don’t want to be tied down.”
Blando cleared his throat, smoothed his invisible hair, and said, “Are you sure?”
“We’re sure,” they answered in concert.
“Alright, then. We like to do the procedure on a Friday. You’ll go home and take it easy over the weekend, Peter, and you’ll be good to return to work on Monday.”
“Can he barbecue on Friday night?” Sonja blurted. Peter elbowed her, stopping her in mid-sentence, which did nothing to staunch her glee. Geysers of laughter threatened to erupt from her nose and mouth. Dr. Blank’s face was a marble column of decorum.
“These are the collection sample jars,” he said, pulling two 5-inch plastic cylinders from the carton and handing them to Peter. After the procedure, we’ll need you to bring in weekly samples of your semen so we can gauge the number of viable sperm. The object is to decrease their numbers gradually until they are no longer detectable.”
“How long will I have to bring in the samples?” Peter asked.
“Four to six weeks,” Blank replied. Then he excused himself, saying, “I’ll be right back.”
Peter and Sonja settled into the puke-colored chairs that blended into the exam room walls. There was not a single photo or poster on the wall, not even the classic one with a chorus line of baby butts. Photos would have brought some life to this room, Sonja thought.
“I hated being an only child,” Peter began. “My dad didn’t talk much, and Mom was a teacher, so everyone expected me to be a brain. It was pretty lonely at our house. I had a lot of trouble learning to read. We moved when I was in second grade. I had to start at a new school, and I was already way behind. I felt really out of place. But she didn’t help me at all. Why wouldn’t she help me?”
“That’s really sad,” Sonja whispered, cupping Peter’s elbow. She had heard some of this before, but today Peter’s words struck her eardrums with new vehemence. “I grew up on a different planet. We four girls were a rowdy bunch, always smacking each other with pillows or pulling some prank. Sometimes it was fun, like when we played pancakes, but there was no privacy. The house was small, and it was hard to claim your own space. We used to pop open each other’s doors with a bread knife.”
“How do you play pancakes?”
“You pile on top of each other until you laugh so hard you fall off.”
“That sounds like fun,” Peter said.
“Do you think it will hurt?” Sonja asked.
“Will what hurt? Oh, the vasectomy. Nah, not much. Rolf had it done, and he said it was really no big deal. He said it stings for a few days. But he got ribbed a lot at the theatre. The guys kept asking him if he could make it up to the catwalk.”
“I think it’s funny, about the collection jars,” Sonja said. “Should we start buying Playboy and Penthouse? Maybe you can dig out your old videos, the ones I made you box up in the garage.”
“It would be more fun if you helped me,” Peter replied.
The conversation ended abruptly, like a trail that runs headlong into an unexpected lake. There was nothing more to say. Sonja thought about her next-door-neighbor, Thalia, single mother to three-year-old Blake. Sometimes Sonja would sit and watch “Sesame Street” with Blake while he ate his cereal, giving Thalia a few minutes of peace while she got ready for work. Blake seemed serious and old to her, like a miniature adult. Still, she enjoyed sitting with him and listening to Oscar the Grouch, who was her favorite character.
Her mind shot back to a few years before the wedding. It had taken some time for her to convince Peter that they should get married. He had been married once, when he was very young, and it hadn’t lasted even two years. She knew he was gun shy. But she had felt the rightness of this next step so strongly, and she had explained it to Peter over and over.
“I never planned to get married when I was a kid,” she said. “In college, I thought it was stupid and bourgeois—having to get written permission from the state. But last year this really powerful urge came over me. Things were so good between us, and it felt natural to take it to the next level.”
Babies had not yet crawled into the conversation.
Sonja remembered having dinner with Peter’s parents, the Snyders, soon after they had flown out for the wedding. It was their first trip to California. With no family left in Louisville, they had ended up moving out and buying a mobile home in the nearby 55+ park. Peter’s mom, Lorna, had been afraid to fly but had taken the plunge at seventy-three. On that first visit, Peter and Sonja drove over to the motel where the Snyders were settling in. She had never seen anyone tote a shopping bag full of liquor bottles to a motel room before.
After Peter’s parents moved into the mobile home, Peter and Sonja often came for Sunday dinner. It was a nice enough place, the trailer roomy and bright. But the southern maple furniture and antique oval photos looked misplaced among the plastic and fiberboard of the trailer. There was a studio portrait of Lorna and her nine siblings holding rifles on a farm. If you looked closely, you could see that the background was painted in. The Snyders held court from their twin Barcaloungers, tilted back to the full reclining position.
Sonja followed Lorna out to the kitchen. Lorna looked her up and down as if she were appraising a brood mare.
“Have you kids thought about having children?”
“We’ve decided that it’s not in our future,” Sonja answered.
Nothing like beating around the bush, she thought. Sonja helped Lorna carry dishes of collard greens, lima beans, and fried chicken to the table. Mason started to tell a World War II story about when he was a weatherman stationed in Egypt.
“Every day I would get up, go outside, and see that it was the same temperature, and always sunny. I had to announce that on the radio. It was a tough job.” He laughed at the memory. Getting up from the table, he pointed to a sepia tone photo on the wall. “Here I am sitting in front of the Great Pyramid. My nickname was Sphinx.”
Sonja felt the sharp contrast between the Snyders and her own parents, the Goldens. The latter were pseudo-sophisticates, who hired decorators to be sure their furnishings had the right look. Sonja chalked it up to insecurity. Her house had been full of talk and arguments and constant interruptions at the dinner table. She liked the homespun feel of Peter’s family though they seemed a tad vacuous to her.
“When Peter was born,” Lorna began, “we didn’t know if he we were going to be allowed to keep him or not. He was seven weeks premature, and he was blue as that iris over there.” She pointed out the window. “It gave us such a fright.”
Sonja looked at Peter, who looked like he wanted to fall through a trap door in the floor.
“You look fit and healthy, Sonja,” Lorna continued. Her eyes swept her new daughter-in-law’s belly. “You could still have one.”
Sonja said nothing but looked at Peter. Her eyes begged for rescue.
“Peter’s the end of the line, you know.”
Mason looked uncomfortable. He put his hand on Lorna’s arm. “Let’s clear the table. Then I want to show them what we’re doing in the garden.”
Peter had agreed with Sonja about things going well between them, but he couldn’t see the logic in getting married. Sonja would have preferred that Peter be the one to propose but she felt strongly that it was the right choice for her. The impulse wouldn’t go away, and she knew it would never happen unless she led the charge.
Peter and Sonja continued to sit, numb-assed, waiting for the doctor. They listened for clues in the hallway. It was eerily quiet in the oddly deserted wing of the building. Why had Blando abandoned them? Had he simply forgotten? Or was the wait supposed to get them to talk more about the vasectomy? To get them to be absolutely sure? Sonja could make out faint scratching noises. She pictured a feeble cat clawing a cement wall. The sound persisted, half-hearted. It reminded her a little of her husband. The scraping grew louder, and now she imagined that the cat was scratching on their own door. Where was the goddamned nurse already?
Manic with boredom, Sonja gripped the doorknob. She had to find out what was making the grating sounds. She opened the door a crack and saw something swaying slightly from a wire hanger on the outer doorknob. Grabbing hold of it, she caught and held a wad of cotton fabric. Pulling it into the room, Sonja came face to face with an anemic tie-dyed tee shirt.
“What the hell is going on here?” she asked the light fixture. The shirt was clearly hand made in the usual fashion, with large white circles where the rubber bands had been attached, but the peaches and reds were faded, as though the shirt had been sitting in the sun for a few years. It depressed her a little. Sonja opened the door wider and peered down the hallway. From each doorknob, a similar shirt hung on its own skeletal hanger. The palettes varied, but all of them looked muddied, as though they could use a blast of color boost.
Sonja heard Blando’s voice down the hall. He was talking to a nurse or receptionist.
“My daughter made these. I’m selling them for ten dollars.”
Sonja was struck by the sudden animation in his speech; she detected something like pride or even a bit of warmth. Who was this guy? How had his personality changed so radically in an hour? She slunk back into the room. Perhaps she had misjudged Blando. She looked at Peter, lost in his thoughts, and sat down again. She softened a degree toward Dr. Blank.
“I can’t believe he has kids,” she said aloud, but more to herself than to Peter. “That’s really kinda sweet, selling his daughter’s tee shirts, even if they are ugly. Don’t you think?”
Peter held out his arms, palms up, eyebrows raised, then dropped them to his lap. They sat in silence for a few more minutes. Peter caught Sonja’s gaze and held it for a long time. Then they gripped hands, gathered their coats, and left the clinic. Just outside the double doors, they tossed the collection jars into a recycling bin.
About the writer:
Sandra Anfang is a poet and visual artist. Her poems have appeared in numerous journals, including San Francisco Peace and Hope, The Tower Journal, Poetalk, Unbroken Literary Journal, Rattle, and Spillway. Her chapbook, Looking Glass Heart, was published by Finishing Line Press in 2016. Road Worrier: Poems of the Inner and Outer Landscape (Finishing Line Press, 2018) followed. A full-length collection, Xylem Highway, was released in March, 2019 from Main Street Rag. Sandra has been nominated for a Best Short Fictions award and a Pushcart Prize. Unbroken Journal featured an interview with her about the prose poem. Sandra is founder and host of the monthly series Rivertown Poets in Petaluma, California, and a California Poet/Teacher in the Schools.