All the difference...
‘You will find that switching the light off will make all the difference,’ said the sign above the switch. Finding himself in pitch darkness, he realised that it was not going to work. Not with such a small container and the risk of making a messy job of it. Flicking the switch back on, he looked around the room, wondering how many messy jobs had been made of it here before. Two chairs and a wash basin were the only items in this windowless room. And yes, a basketful of well-thumbed magazines with nude pictures. He immediately decided against touching them. The whole situation was ridiculous enough. Getting an erection was hard, though. Avoiding his reflection in the mirror was essential.
He couldn’t bring himself to think about making love to his wife. But thinking of making love to some other woman from the past would be even more inappropriate. If only the book in his pocket had some dirty passages… He should have come prepared. Not that he hadn’t made up his own fantasies about the whole process. A few days ago, he had met the red-haired, slender woman in medical uniform who runs the clinic. She’d glanced at his appointment sheet. “It’s one floor down. Thursday is walk-in day”. He had smiled to think she could be there, helping him with her small hand.
Now he was standing in this soulless space with his trousers undone and nobody to help. It was kind of funny, going about this activity with serious sincerity, while all the staff and patients outside know what one is doing. He was wondering if boys jerking off together was just a thing that happened in movies when, to his great relief, he closed the lid on a small container of his own warm body-fluid.
Back in reception, they reassured him that the test results would be with his doctor next morning. He felt awkward answering the question about his last discharge: two weeks ago, when he was with his wife, he said. This wasn’t the truth. It was under a blanket, like a schoolboy, a few nights ago, over some soft porn. It had left him feeling a mixture of sadness and guilt. All his adult life he rarely if ever felt good after it, when the first few moments of forgetfulness passed. As soon as the rational thought process returns, so do a bundle of difficult feelings.
Back home that evening, he looked at the status of his visa application on the embassy website, as he did every other evening. Batch number E20111958191, status: still pending. As it had been for almost a year now. He thought of his wife on the other side of the Atlantic, how increasingly hard it was to contain their unhappiness.
When finally he fell asleep, he dreamed of an organized distribution of sperm by an underground sisterhood led by the red-haired director of the clinic. The moment his sperm was tested, a door opened to reveal a new small army of secret patients. He dreamed of all his children being born to different, unknown women.
The following morning his doctor reassured him that all was fine with his fertility. He knew the children in his dream would all be born with some of him within, each would have something of his pain, incomprehensible at first. The pain would be what made them grow into adulthood, eventually becoming the backbone of their lives, just as his own pain (incomprehensible at first) shaped his life into a life worth living.
The origins of his own pain and that of his mother and father, once understood, had become a source of strength and love which enabled him to live with new pain, the pain of his own making. A life of solitude amid a sea of humanity: the result of his own choices. He wondered what pain is endured by those who sit behind the desks of the embassy. Do they too turn their own pain into their raison d’être?
Larry slammed the front door as he walked in carrying several shopping bags and a bunch of flowers. “Honey, I’m home”, he shouted. No response. He put down his awkward load and climbed the heavy stairs to the bedroom. His wife was asleep, pale, dark rings under her eyes. At work, all day long, he’d been thinking about her and their years together. The day they met, their plans for the future. His shoulders went up in a tense movement. Bending towards her, he kissed her hand poking above the blanket, and crept out.
Downstairs, in the kitchen, he made a large rye and soda on the rocks: a treat from back home he kept up in this strange city. He began to relax as the first sip shifted the debris from his chest. All day long his mind had raced back and forth through their conversations over the last few months and years. They would touch the issue tentatively, stopping whenever there was a chance of argument or hurting, and returning to it weeks or months later, as if with new understanding. Once they had made the decision, he knew that this day would be the toughest test for their relationship.
At work, in the embassy, the names on the files passed by him, all a matter of indifference to him, until he made himself go back to them, over and over, whenever the track of his own thoughts stopped for a moment, in order to make connections. Of course he recognised names associated with various regions of the world. He could be amused by thinking of the lives of people behind the files he compiled, day after day. But today he felt a deep aversion towards all of them: that whole jumble of names and people, reasonable and unreasonable applications, requests, decisions.
Larry’s wife had first come up with the idea. “It would still be at least half ours”, he recalled her saying. He tried to take it on the chin. He thought of asking a friend, but he wouldn’t be able to live with that. The end of a friendship. And a constant reminder of that friendship. “They’re immaculate at that clinic”, his wife said. He couldn’t stop a small chuckle at that word. “Their checks are absolutely scrupulous and donors keep their anonymity”.
He tried not to think about that ‘half theirs’ thing that might soon start to grow in his wife’s womb. He looked around the room at the furniture and objects they’d assembled over the last few years. Each item had a life of its own. Each purchase was like adding a new member of the family. His child would be a real live member of the family. His wife’s child. Not his. But part of their family.
For a moment his mind strayed to the files at work. He always resisted bringing work home, especially in his head. But now he thought about all those people trying to bring their families together through the applications on his files. Strange are the ways in which families come to be, he thought.
Hannah came home from work, stressed out as usual. She really must stop, soon, next week, or at least as soon as the last lot of clients have been processed. She took a long shower and watched water drops snaking down the bathroom tiles. She tried to persuade herself to dress up and go out. It had been weeks. She missed male company, but she couldn’t think of men beyond those small containers, or of women beyond anxious looks and then finally, wide open legs. She wondered how she had ever ended up with this job. Medicine had seemed like noble profession, way back then when she was making her life-defining decisions. And now years later… Would she ever have her own child? People must still fall in love and make kids the old-fashioned way, yet that seemed as distant as cave dwelling. One particular fragile, pale woman at the clinic this morning, desperate to bear a child despite her husband’s infertility. How would they cope with all the unknown that the child would bring them from the anonymous donor father? “Does the force which drives one forward through life begin with our own mother’s desire to have a child?” she wondered.
He checked the status of his visa application again. Not that he any longer believed it would ever be processed. He wondered what the embassy staff, snooping about in other peoples’ lives, were looking for? Would they find out something about him that he didn’t know himself? What different “him” would they construct? If he had all the details and observations they recorded, could he confirm that the person in the file was really himself?
“What are we made of, anyhow?” He asked himself this question over and over. Was his life just a trail of unfulfilled intentions and failures, a bundle of fantasies and illusions? He felt that intentions and decisions somehow mattered more than success and failure. His intentions were all he could add to whatever he had brought into the world with his own birth. But, then, was this just failure speaking out of him?
“Here… Hear… Let me tell you a story!” - he almost heard himself shout. “Maybe a dream…” - he thought, “And if it is my dream, then it is my story, too…”
But he knew that what he wanted to say was not just a dream. There were three of them, and they were supposed to tell him, one by one, something they had never told him before, like a confession, and he was hoping to hear the words that he had wanted to hear all his life… And he was supposed to say something gentle in return, something that would make them all as fragile as a crumbling crust of bread, or an old love letter that falls to pieces between the fingers that touch it. And then they sat down together beside low tables, shoulder to shoulder, and laughter and the rhythm of conversations reverberated around them like some strange dance. Bottles of wine were opened, the sound of clinking glasses like crickets in the fields, and from somewhere a song, as if brought by the wind, a female voice, low and high at the same time, that seemed to stir the blades of grass and lift the smells of summer into the air. Then he knew it was himself, sitting between his mother and his father, the three of them together for the first time, just before he was born.