I’m due at the New York Hospital Fertility Clinic in half an hour. My Raleigh three-speed stands ready to hustle me to Sixty-Eighth Street and York Avenue, about as far across town as you can get from this one-room walkup at the corner of Fifty-Seventh and Tenth. Yes, I donate my semen. Though it isn’t exactly a donation. I get paid thirty bucks a shot, so to speak. I need the money and childless couples need…well, me. A pretty straight-forward transaction, you might say, with the added satisfaction of helping somebody out in a cosmic sort of way. Though I have a bad feeling about it sometimes, like this morning, the vague sense that I’m doing something wrong, and one day it’ll all catch up with me.
Maybe it’s the idea of charging for something that should be the natural outcome of a good time, even love. Or maybe it’s the thought of a bunch of kids running around with dark wavy hair and eyes that sometimes read gray, sometimes green, like mine. What if two of them met some day and fell in love, not knowing they’re half-brother and sister? Or what if I saw one of my obvious offspring on the street twenty years from now? I’d have this weird feeling, and he—or she—would look through me like I wasn’t even there.
I think about these things.
My clock radio buzzes to life with the news that Nixon and Brezhnev are meeting in Moscow to discuss nuclear disarmament, which they’ve been sparring about for weeks now. And OPEC is ending the oil embargo it put in place after the Yom Kippur War. Maybe now my landlord will consider filling the tank and cranking up the heat.
The inch of snow that accumulated on the window sill overnight is already dotted with soot. A truck downshifts on Tenth Avenue, five dingy floors below. I imagine the smell of its pluming exhaust, half noxious-half enticing, like cheap perfume. In the three years I’ve lived here, I’ve learned to tell the time of day by the traffic sounds. The morning rush hour starts at six with the belching semis and switches to honking taxis an hour and a half later. That continues until about nine-fifteen, or maybe later. Depends. Tuesdays in winter, like this one, are quiet. And cold. I take a guess—7:25—and lean over to my Big Ben windup, which serves as backup for the radio, it’s metallic tick hardly even noticeable anymore. I’m shy three minutes. Can’t quibble with that.
I adjust the radio’s Formica case to line up with the Big Ben which evenly straddles a crack in the floor. A sense of order can get you through sometimes.
I pick up where I left off with the pumping, working at what should be fun. The cracked ceiling overhead, a parchment map of water stains from the roof, sparks thoughts of traveling ancient roads to some remote village, a place I would call home, a concept I find elusive. Fact is, this dump feels more like home than Vermont ever did. I like New York. So why would I think about leaving? Because I can, I guess. Because there’s not that much holding me here, because restless is my middle name.
Home, a fifth floor walkup, basically a tenement. The hot water’s as iffy as the heat. Druggies use the dim area under the first-floor stairway to consummate their deals. So does the occasional prostitute. Glad somebody’s consummating something around here.
I peak under the blankets. You can’t really blame my dick for feeling put upon.
Three years ago, fresh off the bus from debriefing at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, I took this place so I could live alone, a priority after a year-long stint in Vietnam, where you’re never out of sight of somebody, friend or foe, twenty-four/seven. Since I was a kid, I’d heard stories about New York City. My mom had lived here when she was in her twenties. That was 1954, when New York was as upbeat as the two-way traffic on Fifth Avenue and the pennant-winning Brooklyn Dodgers. She had landed a secretarial job, met my father, had me and gotten divorced, all in the space of two years. Ended up outside Bennington, Vermont, with a couple of hundred bucks and a cache of thwarted dreams. I sometimes wonder if I’m headed in that direction, myself. Of course, you have to have dreams before they can be thwarted.
These thoughts are not doing much for the task at hand, so to speak.
Plenty of nights, I drifted into sleep listening to stories of skyscraper canyons and psychedelic streets, of a place called Times Square, where the lights never dimmed, where theaters lined up one after the other like used cars—take your pick. Since she was a girl, my mom had dreamed of being an actress, but the dad I never met got in the way of all that. Men got in the way of lots of things, according to her, though I can’t really see her letting that happen. Still, the idea of disillusionment probably settled into my heavy-eyed half-sleep and made me cautious of ever giving my own ambition free range. But the thought of living in New York City stuck with me and when I left North Carolina, this is where I headed.
The first thing I noticed, stepping out of the Port Authority bus terminal onto Eighth Avenue, was the tantalizing scent of exhaust, sweat and fast food, all jumbled together and spilling onto the street like an overflowing trash can. For a couple of weeks, I just wandered, rubber-necked, ate hot dogs and apples from street vendors and took it all in. Then I found this walkup advertised in the Village Voice. I was fine with the seedy neighborhood, the stink of piss in the alley, the occasional early-morning fight outside the bar on the first floor-—the ‘top Light,’ once the ‘Stop Light’, before its neon S burned out. I was in Manhattan, which was one very long way from Southeast Asia and as unlike Vermont as pineapples are snowplows.
I take up the pumping. The radio announcer reports the date, Friday, February 4, 1974, and the temperature in Central Park, thirty-four degrees. I figure my room is maybe ten degrees warmer. Less cold. I blow on my fingers and wrap them back around. Cold must be a natural form of birth control. Turn down the heat in suburbia—end of population crisis, oil shortage, beleaguered moms, frazzled dads.
Twenty-three minutes to delivery time. I’ll be late if I don’t get something going here pretty soon.
Those first weeks, I pulled scraps of the previous tenant’s underwear out of gaps around the window and attached weather-stripping to the dry-rotted casing. Washing the glass with a wet sock, I leaned out over the city, fired up by its big dirty anonymity. “Hey!” I yelled to nobody in particular, “It’s me, Hank Preston. I made it!”
For most of that first month, I stripped wallpaper, yanked up layers of cracked linoleum and painted the walls and woodwork and floors all an optimistic white. I adopted an easy chair from the street and a baggage cart on iron wheels which, with the addition of a futon, made a sofa-bed I can push around with my foot, following the light from the window. I made the place mine, though everything had somebody else’s imprint on it. So much the better. I like a sense of history. I keep the place neat as a military barracks. The easiest thing about boot camp for me was keeping my gear in perfect order. Growing up in Vermont, the more chaotic things got—and they got pretty crazy sometimes—the neater my room became. In three years here, I’ve nearly filled one wall with used books, sorted alphabetically by author, and a collection of playbills sorted by date of performance.
I inherited this love of theater, of course, from my mom, who used to drag me to summer stock performances around New England, way back when I had to strain to see over the seatback in front of me. My particular fascination with plays, to this day, is a little weird. Instead of hanging on the action or looking for hidden meaning in the dialogue, my heart’s in my throat thinking how brave the actors are to put themselves out there like they do. I pretty much always fall in love with the ingénue, though she, of course, only has eyes for her leading man with the great voice and the perfect hair.
Maybe it’s the thought of the ingénue, but with a couple of quick strokes, my hard-on rises, finally, like an Atlas missile and I have a lift-off. I fumble with the little vial the clinic provides for transport, as a paltry stream of cum worth the price of a week’s groceries dribbles over my thumb and forms a viscous puddle on my belly. I scoop up all I can and jam on the lid. Vial-ent sex!
My feet hit the icy floor. I pull on my jeans and reach for a flannel shirt and two sweaters, all lodged inside each other like firemen’s garb. I tie my spit-polished boots and stuff the vial into my shirt pocket, where it’ll stay warm against my chest. Parka zipped, knitted cap pulled down around my ears, I shoulder my bike, step into the hallway and double-lock the door with a barely audible click. I take the four flights to the street two steps at a time. Nothing I hate more than being late.
Fifty-Seventh Street lags with cross-town traffic, the night’s precipitation ground into a thick gray ooze that clogs my tire treads. I ease into a lane of yellow cabs, the occasional paneled truck, a stretch limo. A damp wind whips off the Hudson providing a much-appreciated eastward shove at my back. I turn north on Eighth Avenue to Columbus Circle and into Central Park, where a morning haze shimmers in skeletal trees. My frosty brake rubbers whine. I imagine myself a dad, carrying his kid, a tiny warm package wrapped in Eskimo blankets, home to his mom, a former Miss Alaska with a white-as-snow smile and ebony hair. She has a hot walrus stew on the fire and can’t wait to climb naked under a bear skin with the man of her dreams.
Of course, I’ll never see the potential kid I’m carrying against my chest. Or the mom, either.
I take the Seventy-Second Street exit from Central Park and pedal my butt to the East Side. It’s six minutes after eight as I pull up to a Gothic stone building at the east end of Sixty-Eighth Street. Damn! The first time in three years I’m late.
Every Manhattan neighborhood has its own particular character, I’ve noticed. Here, it’s the sense of distinction that emanates from the giant hospital buildings, majestic yet austere in the gray morning light. The sidewalks are cleaner than where I live, which isn’t saying a whole lot. This is a real neighborhood, not a tasteless collection of tenements and warehouses that have nothing to do with each other, despite their proximity. The dampness off the East River carries the vague scent of coffee, absurdly homey.
I shoulder my bike and pull open the building’s heavy bronze door, my legs wobbly as rubber. Warm yellow light spills from the resting elevator to my right. The marble stairway looms to my left. Dr. McAvery, the clinic director, told me to always take the stairs, no matter what, never the elevator. But he’s probably never had to haul a bike up four flights, his fingers and toes half-frozen, running late. I look from the elevator to the stairway, elevator-stairway, warm-cold, light-dark, like I’m taking in the tennis at Forest Hills.
I duck into the elevator and press five, noticing a warm wetness against my chest. I run my fingers up under my sweater. The vial is turned on its side and leaking into my shirt pocket. As I right it, a woman’s leather-gloved hand interrupts the door’s closing. She hustles inside, glances from my face to where my arm juts under my sweater, and presses five, though its indicator is already lit. She turns her back to me. I take in her auburn hair, her fresh citrus fragrance, the tension in her body, visible even under the mink coat, which I can’t help wishing were wool. I‘ve always believed those scurrying little mortals should be allowed to keep their own coats. Obviously this woman doesn’t, which might be fine if I didn’t strongly suspect, if I weren’t somehow completely convinced and therefore panicked to realize, that she is to be the recipient of my sperm. That is, if it hasn’t all leaked onto my chest by now.
Heat rises to my face. I look down at my faded jeans, my boots soaked with slush. Clearly I belong on the stairs. At least there’s no mirrored wall to reflect our images to each other, though I know hers pretty well already—the heavy eye liner, the lipstick-lined pucker, the forced calm. Has she sensed who I am? Will she tell Dr. McAvery she met a waif in the elevator who smelled of semen and a shortage of showers? I glance at the floor numbers advancing overhead, feeling guilty, and, I have to admit, curious.
Neither of us risks another glance. My bike tire drips. The mink glistens in the overhead light. I imagine touching the short hairs at the nape of her neck, so vulnerable and sweet. Should I tell her I know who she is and suggest that it’s not too late for one of us to turn back, that we don’t have to plague ourselves with the “birth parent” image already fixed in our brains? But I say nothing, of course.
The elevator slows to five. The door slides open and she darts to the right. I step into the hallway behind her, my bike pressing into my shoulder. Her legs are muscular, athletic. Her heels click the terrazzo floor like a tap dancer’s. Her lemony fragrance lingers. I lower my bike and recheck the vial. As she pulls open the clinic door, her eyes dart back to me. She grins and—I will wonder, later, if I made this up—winks. The corners of my mouth twitch into the beginning of a grin as she disappears inside.
Feeling weirdly bereft, I make my way to the clinic’s rear entrance. Now I really get why McAvery insisted on the stairs. He knew how strange it would be for a donor to run into the mother of his potential offspring, to picture her stomach swelling to the size of a basketball, to imagine the sweet little shared likeness evolving from this cold morning moment. And what about her, seeing the dad who’s not really the dad but just a stand-in for the dad she wishes was able to make her a mom? Yeah, McAvery had his reasons all right.
He’s waiting for me at the back entrance, dispenses with his usual friendly greeting and ignores my apology, as much of a rebuke for my tardiness as the old man can muster. “There might be a problem,” I say, reaching under my sweater for the vial. “I think it leaked.” I hold up my sweater for him to see.
He glances at the wet spot, then takes the little canister and holds it up to the light. “It’ll do,” he says, handing me three tens.
“You sure?” I ask him.
McAvery raises an eyebrow in my direction as he slips the vial into the pocket of his long white coat.
I picture the semen dripping from my semi-stiff dick half an hour ago, the frigid cross-town ride, the demeaning glance of the woman in the elevator, and this crazy longing comes up in me. I want McAvery to hug me. I want him to say I’m doing a decent thing, that I shouldn’t always be worrying about everything the way I do.
“Is there anything else?” he asks me.
I blink into the florescent light and shake my head.
“I’ll be in touch, then,” he says, turning back into the clinic and closing the door behind him.
I remove my handkerchief from my back pocket and wipe down my bike, recalling the tour of the clinic McAvery gave me during my interview three years ago. I noticed a bulletin board by the front desk, pinned with baby photographs—the clinic’s proud successes. “We should move along,” he said. But I lingered there, taking in that array of cherub faces, homely little angels with drunken eyes, trapezoidal heads and wacky hair. “Donors come and go, Hank,” he said, chuckling and leading me away.
What if this donation business is just some sort of hedge against the worry that I might never have a family of my own? Pathetic as it sounds, the only girlfriend I ever had was in tenth grade, and she only lasted two months. I couldn’t even maintain her interest long enough to bring her to my birthday party, the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. The guy my mother was seeing at the time was there, along with a couple of his drinking buddies and a woman whose breath smelled like dated hamburger. I was always uneasy about inviting my friends to our house, few as they were, so the celebration wouldn’t have had much to do with me anyway. Still, I remember sitting in my mother’s lounger by the night-blackened picture window and thinking about the girl who’d somehow singled me out that fall. What had she found desirable in me? And what had I done to change her mind? That week, she had steered around me at school like I had BO or wicked acne, or something worse I hadn’t even considered.
My birthday cake had been lifted out of its windowed box and set on the counter. While my mother searched for candles she swore she remembered seeing in a drawer, the woman with the meat breath stole a swipe of icing off the side of the cake. She looked across the room divider at me and shrugged as she sucked her finger. For some reason, this had made me miss my no-longer girlfriend all the more.
I hoist my bike to my shoulder now and take the four flights down to the front door. Maybe the mink-clad redhead will make a good mother. Who knows about these things?
Michael Quadland grew up in Williamstown, Massachusetts. He graduated from Dartmouth College and received a Master of Public Health degree from Yale University and a PhD in psychology from New York University. In addition to his private psychotherapy practice, he taught human sexuality at Mt Sinai School of Medicine in New York City and consulted with various private and governmental organizations about AIDS prevention and the emotional-psychological aspects of the disease. He has published many articles in professional journals about AIDS and sexuality. The Los Angeles Times published his nonfiction article, “A Red X,” about the death of a friend.
Quadland left AIDS work in 1995, reduced the size of his psychotherapy practice and restored an eighteenth century farmhouse in Connecticut, doing much of the work himself. His first novel, THAT WAS THEN was a finalist for a Lambda Literary Award in 2007. His second novel, OFFSPRING, came out March 1, 2012. Quadland also paints, and has three shows coming up in Spring 2012. He lives in Litchfield, Connecticut.
Adapted from Offspring by Michael Quadland. Copyright © 2012 by Michael Quadland. With the permission of the publisher, Red Hen Press.