It began as a pleasant sensation, which soon turned into something more like the dull, cloying, bittersweet pain of blue balls. This was followed by a visit to a doctor who lied and told me I had an infection and suggested that I visit a urologist, but I don’t blame him because I was afraid to go, out of fear, for more than a year. I had never even heard of testicular cancer until the day my
brother happened to mention it in conversation, upon which I instantly and silently diagnosed myself.
Before the operation, I had to go to a sperm bank on the seventy-second floor of the Empire State Building, where I greeted the nurse with a well-rehearsed “I’d like to make a deposit, please.” She came back with a petri dish and a thick pile of hardcore pornography in an insidious black binder. Thus equipped, I was led to a tiny, cold room furnished with a black vinyl chair. I couldn’t help picturing the never-ending parade of anonymous onanists who had passed through this room over time. I hunched over the dish like a man with morning wood trying to urinate, and soon emerged with the goods. I was chatting with the nurse, trying to gauge my effectiveness against the human average of five grams and the bank record of ten grams, wondering if they gave him a plaque or something, when an attractive couple walked in. The man reached into his overcoat, pulled out his own sample, joked with the teller about the two-hour time limit, filled out a few forms and departed with his beloved. While I had been reminded more than once to not ejaculate for five days prior to this, no one had told me that I could have done it off-site with a friend. I angrily told this to the nurse. She told me that I had never asked about it.
No, I suppose I hadn’t. In retrospect I realize that at some point before my right testicle turned to stone, the prospect of a hand job or any such thing had ceased to interest me. I had never planned on staying in New York very long, but some parts of me checked out long before others. Slowly, the claustrophobia and loneliness of living among ten million people only exaggerated by television, marijuana and sarcasm shut off the possibility that I would reach out to someone. When things are good, or average, or somewhat below average, the entire sexual response is available to us we are curious and provoke curiosity, we tease and flirt, and each hidden curve appears as a shimmering mystery. In worse times all we seek is precious attention, the coin of the realm, in the hopes that a good or even marginal fuck will wash away the anomie. At bottom, we look entirely inward,
and all that remains is a notion of sex as something ludicrous and filthy. The possibility of sex slips away and betrays us when we most need it, when we most need to anticipate what it would feel like, to imagine recalling it over and over, to feel ourselves alongside someone else.
As it turned out, my condition wasn’t serious. I had a touch of cancer, which was painless and would not require chemotherapy. It was not nearly as dramatic as real cancer, the disease that eats you from the inside out, that behaves like an alien life form, whose awesome power we use as a metaphor. But it was the most interesting thing that had happened to me in a while, and as the devil tells Ivan Karamazov, “There must be events.” At last, a happening, an occurrence. Cancer Lite. Something not to shock me out of stagnation with a fantastic appreciation for each moment in life, but rather to prolong and exacerbate my self-indulgent behavior. All the excitement of the disease and none of the excruciating side effects.
Except that they removed one of my testicles and sliced it thin like a truffle for the microscope. Afterwards, every day for six weeks, I dragged my shorn and swaddled two-thirds of a package onto the gray L train, into the bowels of a gray hospital, to the radiation mill where I joined a daily cancer circus of those with no breasts, those with one lung and those so enamored of life that they chose to spend their days half-dead under an invisible poisonous ray rather than die. After a few days of commiserating with the wretched, I settled comfortably into the role of victim, which, as it is supposed to, effaced my real problems. It was the perfect escape utterly, yet legitimately symbolic. Pity the man with one testicle. I spent my days dwelling on this missing object, looking forward to a lifetime of excuses.
Three weeks into radiation I had a date with a woman of formidable intelligence who ran eight miles a day. We went for drinks at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, then got the next day’s newspaper and read it together on her bed. I wasn’t ready to try out my new arrangement, but I wanted to see her with her clothes off. She could tell I wasn’t sure what I was there for. “You’re in that
vulnerable stage,” she said. I had to agree with her; I had been for a while. That was my last date in New York.
Eventually, I returned to Maine to spend my days as a student teacher. Teaching gave me confidence, alleged to be the secret ingredient that no woman can resist. I swaggered about town like a man of action, but continued not to be particularly interested in sex. Attraction seemed too complicated to plot out, so I thought I would just be sincere, be myself. All winter the local pub bristled with the inane banter of the seducer, the smallest talk. I tried to amuse girls with stories of this and that; I tried to pay attention and to stand up straight, but ultimately I was there to observe. I am too proud to attend strip bars, but you get the idea.
I continued to be haunted by my missing testicle. At our first meeting after the operation, my doctor had asked me if I was interested in a prosthesis. I thought he was joking. A single testicle is adequate for reproductive functions, so a second one is redundant; it exists, feels intense pleasure and pain, and that’s about it. I reminded myself of this over and over, trying to reconcile the loss. I imagined that I was just like a guy with one kidney, or a glass eye, or a frostbitten toe. But I couldn’t help realizing that after more than a year, no one had curled up next to me and stroked my hair, saying, “You poor, poor thing.”
Emily approached me after Easter services, during which I had been stealing glances at her Sunday best, and invited me to dinner at her house. I arrived early, and she was waxing the kitchen floor in anticipation of my visit. Later on, I arrested her hand as it slid underneath my boxers, and explained what she may or may not find down there. “That’s weird,” she said, crinkling up her nose in dismay. I had to agree. Perhaps not as weird as the scene in Ulysses
where Zoe the prostitute teases Bloom about his possible tumor and then pulls a “black hard shriveled potato” out of his pocket. But still.
I saw her a few more times, but when we split up over the telephone, she said take care, which always means take care of yourself because I certainly won’t be doing it for you. I never resented her reaction to my disfigurement, because finally someone had come right out and spoken the cruel, undemocratic truth: things were not the way they were supposed to be. I remember the rest of that summer as a seemingly endless sequence of warm, breezy days, spent in strange high schools looking for work. Days that are supposed to be shared with someone in cut-offs or a summer dress, not passing off loneliness as introspection.
In August I met Nichole. She was ravenous and never mentioned a word about my condition. I could have had brain, liver, lung and skin cancer anything, as long as my dick was intact. People say that sex should be playful, and it always starts out that way. I’m always laughing and talking until the moment I get up in there, at which point everything changes and what was a game becomes incredibly profound and serious. But through all that sex remains a simple pleasure, and Nichole understood this very well. In the absence of lamps and genies, does rubbing up against someone bring good luck? Or is it a wish that, when granted, helps you to start wishing
Luck or not, three weeks after meeting Nichole, I got a job at my old high school, just before classes started. I loved the students, the ocean air in my classroom, the books that I was teaching, the women that Odysseus meets, everything.
Nichole hadn’t read a book in years. She was an artist who made blank ones from scratch. One day we delivered a few to a bookstore downtown. It was an old place with brick walls that I had walked by a thousand times but never gone into. That night, Susan, the clerk from the bookstore, a divinity student with red hair and green eyes, came up to me at the pub and said, “I’ve been thinking about you all day.” She meant it not as a lurid invitation, but as mere fact, an expression of surprise and delight. It was my first glimpse of her utter sincerity.
Years later, dressing for a night out, Susan would tell me that she felt sexy. I didn’t understand what that meant, I just knew it was good.