Endangered Species

Overview

"In his witty and beautifully written novels, Louis Bayard is establishing Washington D.C. as the District of Comedy."-Bob Smith, author of Openly Bob, and Way to Go Smith

The Broome family is facing an uncertain future; however no one but youngest son Nick seems to notice. Driven by an inexplicable but driving certainty that they are on the brink of extinction, Nick vows to bring a child into the world by whatever means necessary. The problem? Nick is gay. The brave new world ...

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Overview

"In his witty and beautifully written novels, Louis Bayard is establishing Washington D.C. as the District of Comedy."-Bob Smith, author of Openly Bob, and Way to Go Smith

The Broome family is facing an uncertain future; however no one but youngest son Nick seems to notice. Driven by an inexplicable but driving certainty that they are on the brink of extinction, Nick vows to bring a child into the world by whatever means necessary. The problem? Nick is gay. The brave new world of parenting is explored as never before in Louis Bayard's new novel, which is full of the dry wit, snaking plot turns, and vivid, well-rounded characters that earned raves and fans for his first novel, Fool's Errand. Nick's quest for a surrogate mother will draw him to schizophrenics, Hispanic immigrants, body-pierced teenagers, female escorts, a God-fearing phlebotomist, an itinerant matchmaker, and an unbalanced but irrepressible young woman named Nattie, who ultimately may provide what he is seeking in the way he least expected. Alternately moving and very, very funny, Nick Broome's quest to leave a mark on the world drives straight to the heart of the evolving nature of love and family.

Louis Bayard is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Nerve.Com, Genre, Lambda Book Report, and the Washington Blade among others. He is the author of Fool's Errand, and lives in Washington, D.C.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In this well-crafted second novel, Nick Broome, the youngest son of a Washington, D.C., family, is facing an existential crisis, namely, the demise of his nonprocreative clan's family name. He wants desperately to bring life into the world, envisioning a boy in a blue parka as his ideal son and even going so far as to make a deal with himself to make a baby within a year. Thirty-four-year-old Nick refuses to adopt because his lump of love must share his DNA, and the usual boy-meets-girl route is not open to him, for Nick is gay. The bulk of the novel is a whirlwind tour of the world of artificial insemination and surrogacy. Nick's breeding quest takes him behind the door of sperm banks, where posters of European towers suggest phallic exuberance; when sperm collectors reject him, Nick tries to find a surrogate mother. His ads in the newspaper and on the Internet bring in, among others, a female escort, an angry teen and the unbalanced Nattie, whose brother, Joe, Nick meets in the mental hospital where Nattie has registered herself for a tuneup. Though Joe and Nick become lovers, he continues his search for a fertile vessel. His family is dying out, Nick believes, and he's doing nothing about it. As the novel reaches its crescendo, Nick foolishly treats Joe like a son and flirts dangerously with a contract matchmaker named Lyle, eventually learning more about love and himself. Though the novel's method is at times tiresome and the humor at best tepid, Bayard manages to keep our interest in Broome's quest while teaching us a thing or two about the force that drives procreation. Regional author appearances. (Apr.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781555836412
  • Publisher: Alyson Publications
  • Publication date: 4/1/2001
  • Edition description: 1 ED
  • Pages: 288
  • Product dimensions: 5.52 (w) x 8.52 (h) x 0.66 (d)

Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER ONE

It's when you've been rejected by your third sperm bank that your life, such as it is, begs to be reconsidered.
So that's what I've been doing these last wet days of March, two weeks past my 34th birthday. Taking the scratchy woolen sock that is Nicholas and turning it inside out and shaking it clean. Mostly, though, I've been thinking about Atlantic herring. These are fish that travel in large schools and reproduce about as casually as I untangle phone cords: When they're ready, they just gather in the same vicinity and, on the count of three, divest themselves of eggs and sperm. No courtship rituals. No ecstatic unions. No lace valances in the nursery. They scatter their seed, they swim on. The rest of their lives stretches before them like a putting green. Maybe one night in forty they wonder how their little soldiers have made out, but mostly they swim.
I think about the Atlantic herring because, apparently, I have been trying to become one. The latest letter seems to acknowledge this, subtly: It refers to me as an "aspirant."

Dear Aspirant,

Thank you for your interest in Capitol Cryobank. At the present time, however, we find ourselves in a surplus situation, insofar as supply far exceeds current demand. Consequently, we are unable to consider even worthy candidates at this time.

You may be assured that we will keep your application on file and will contact you should any future need arise.

We thank you again for your interest....


All very businesslike. The vague reference to "worthy candidates," for instance, the unwavering politeness. I nearly choked the first time I read it. Maybe if they'd known how hard it was to find them in the first place, how I spent the better part of a day calling around to OB/GYN offices and fertility centers looking for names, names. The longer it went, the crazier I got.
"All I want to do is donate some sperm!" That's what I blurted to the receptionist in Gaithersburg. "The rest of it doesn't matter," I said. "Really. You wouldn't have to hear from me ever again."
"I'm sorry," the woman said. "As a rule, we import from California."
Which threw me, I admit. California?
"In addition to which," the woman said, "we cannot take these kinds of inquiries over the phone."
"Can I make an appointment with someone?"
"Well, you can, but not here."
"Why not?"
"Because our sperm comes from California."
I said, "Maybe if I telephoned you from California...."
"Now you're being silly," she said.
It was like that the whole afternoon. I couldn't shake the feeling that everyone I talked to, by prearranged agreement, was trying to stop me. Stop me outright or just send me down unprofitable side routes.
"Now let me get this straight," said one woman. (They did all seem to be women.) "You want to donate or you want to freeze your own?"
"I don't want to freeze anything," I said. "I just want to leave my sample and go home."
By four-thirty in the afternoon, I was sagging in my swivel chair, staring at the crumbling tile on the office ceiling, trying to decide if I could go on. I could. I could make one more call, to a scratchy-voiced woman from the Franconia Family Complex, who gave my question about two seconds of thought and said, "Well, there is Capitol Cryobank. Out in Manassas."
At which point I was so tired I failed to detect the anomaly: "Capitol Cryobank," located not in the monumental corridor of Washington, D.C., but in the suburban splatter of Manassas, Virginia. Which begged the question of why it bothered to call itself "Capitol." What patriotic imperative, what call to arms was this?
But that was the name I was given, so that's the name I went with. Clearly, my desperation got the better of me, caused me to become emotionally invested in what, for all I know, is a borderline Chapter 11 operation. The name alone should have warned me, and if not the name, the 12-page questionnaire they sent.
Understand, I didn't go down this path with any illusions. I expected questions. I recognized that the sperm highway needs tollkeepers. But these inquisitions! My job, my salary, hobbies, sports, sleeping rhythms, politics. Every last offshoot of the family tree. I was asked the medical histories of women I've never met, women who came of age in mill towns and wore cloches and danced the Lindy. How the fuck should I know?
But I soldiered on. I checked off all the medical conditions that could possibly apply (warts/moles, deviated septum), answered everything as best I could, stuffed the sheaf of paper into the pre-stamped envelope, dropped it in the mailbox the next morning, and waited patiently for The Call. And The Call turned out to be a form letter on pomegranate card stock.
Which, believe it or not, was a step up from the previous responses.
At least the first place I tried had a sweet-voiced young receptionist. "Reproductive Re-sources," she said, and as she spoke, a picture emerged in my mind: an auburn-haired colleen with a big, heart-shaped locket and freckles running across the bridge of her nose. She called me "Mr. Broome," which in the context I appreciated, and she didn't seem to mind all the questions. She was prodigiously patient.
"I'm curious about the afterward part," I said. "I mean, say there's a child that actually results from this. Would I ever know? Do they let you know?"
"No, sir. We would need to protect the privacy of the parents and, of course, the child. As I'm sure you understand."
"Oh, that's cool. That's, no, I just.... Ok, say the child grows up. Turns 18, 21, whatever the age is and wants to get in touch. Can he do that? She. He, she."
"No, sir. We keep your medical information on file, naturally, but your name would not be attached to it."
"Oh."
"That's how we protect all the parties involved. Including yourself, Mr. Broome."
Such a lilt she imparted to my name. She gave it a coloratura bloom.
"No, that's fine," I said. "I'm perfectly comfortable with that."
"And are there any other questions you have at this time?" she asked.
I wanted to keep talking. I wanted to listen to her bell-chime voice for the rest of my life....
"No," I said. "I think that's about it."
"Ok, Mr. Broome, my name is Tammy. If you have any questions in the future, please don't hesitate to call us."
That rejection arrived three weeks ago: a Xeroxed form letter that began, "I'm afraid we have some disappointing news...." I called about the possibility of appeal. I left a long and I think coherent message, specifically requesting Tammy. I said, "Tammy has already spent a great deal of time with me on the phone, and I would like to discuss with her whether these decisions are irrevocable. Or whether there are materials I could send in that would bolster my candidacy." I think I kept it under five minutes, but I suspect my message is now Diagram C in the training-course syllabus: Stalkers, Prevention and Handling of.
Tammy never did return my call, but that spark of human contact gave me the momentum to take on Fertility Emporium, an enterprise with no street address and endless tunnels of voice-mail options, mazes with no center. At each mailbox, the same ersatz female, speaking in the same computerized timbre, said: "The party you are seeking is not available. At the tone, please leave your name and number. When you have finished...."
Who were these parties? What species? I couldn't evoke a single freckled colleen from their ranks. All I could imagine, after days of message-leaving, was that they were operating a virtual sperm bank, and every morning I would hook up my dick to a modem and fire off a load of digitized seed and receive a two-line e-mail bulletin whenever contact was made....
In all, I left six messages at Fertility Emporium. To this day, not one has been answered. For all I know, they're gathering my sperm as I sleep.
Sometime around Valentine's Day (and what a discouraging holiday that was) I had an epiphany: The direct engagement of sperm banks was a fool's game. Because, and don't we all know this, proper channels are for suckers. Wasn't it entirely possible that just beyond the line of everyday consciousness lay a vast black market of sperma byzantine underworld accessed by passwords, casually dropped names. "You don't know me, but my friend Gameto suggested I call...."
In quick succession, I telephoned five OB/GYN offices in the Bethesda area. As soon as a human came on the line, I made the usual discreet inquiries, and then, the moment the wall reared up, I'd shift into conspiracy gear, collapse my voice into a faintly European register.
"So that's what you're telling me," I'd say. "On the record."
"Yes, sir."
"So maybe now we can talk about some other way."
Whereupon the receptionist-we'll typify her as a grandmotherly sort named Eileen-would say, "I'm sorry?"
"I mean, since we're both adults. All I'm saying is maybe you know someone. Who can refer me to someone...."
And Eileen would say, "Someone what?"
"Someone who...." Here's where my resolve would begin to falter. "...who knows about some other way of doing it. Not through channels."
Whereupon Eileen, watching the phone lines light up like Roman candles, would say, "Sir, if you or your wife need an appointment, I would be happy to set up a time."
The humiliation and, yes, the surrealism. When did it become this hard to give away your sperm? From all I've read, from all I've ever heard, college boys have been making quick bucks at this for years. Successive generations of young men, astonished at not having corsage money for their house-party dates, have hightailed it to the nearest clinic, shut themselves in a closet and, a couple of yanks later, emerged fifty bucks richer. Isn't this how it's always worked?
I can't help thinking that if I were still in college, still an inchoate being, I would have a much better chance of being selected than I do now. It's living that has disqualified me. It's being alive at the front end of the 21st century...fatally compromising. The tollkeepers want none of me.
"I should have known better."
That's what I tell my friend Shannon. Shannon knows I need sympathy, so she provides it the way she knows how, which is to take me to a piano bar on Capitol Hill, across the street from a boarded-up lesbian bar, and treat me to one round of my favorite drink (sidecar) and interrupt our conversation every time her cell phone rings.
"Shit!" Up comes the index finger. "Ok, sorry, just...hold the thought, all right?" Out comes the little espionage phone from her black Fendi bag-she starts speaking before it even reaches her lips. "This is Shannon. Yeah. Hi." Her eyes roll a little, for my benefit. "No, I haven't heard back, but remember what I said? The Times is very low odds. Ten quintillion op-eds a day, so it's ten quintillion to one. Right. Right."
Shannon is wearing a bright red mini-dress with large brass buttons; it looks like the top half of a bandleader's uniform. More and more, she is dressing like a blonde, although she has the darkest coloring I've ever seen on a blue-eyed woman.
"So I'll let you know as soon as I hear," Shannon says. "Ok? And if it doesn't fly there, we try the Post, the Journal. But you gotta be patient on this, ok, Harold? Ok. All right." The phone vanishes into the handbag. She takes a draft of air. "Fucking. Idiot."
She is sitting on a rattan throne, next to a sagging rubber tree, and behind her a black woman in an enormous anthracite wig is playing "The Girl from Ipanema" on a baby grand. Shannon claims to hate the music here, but now and again you can see her lips moving, almost sulkily, to the words.
"O-kay," she says, drawing herself back together. "You were saying...."
"That I'm a fucking idiot."
"Oh, right."
"Even trying to negotiate with these places, playing their ridiculous fucking games. Giving my family's medical histories to...to men in dingy lab coats. Men with phony stethoscopes."
She nods absently. "Tell me the name of that last place again."
"Capitol Cryobank."
"Hmm," she says.
"Does that inspire trust in you? Cry-o-bank. Is any trust inspired by this name?"
"Um." She frowns a little, eyes me over her vodka martini. "I don't know about trust. Maybe science fiction it inspires."
"Exactly. That's my exact point. Dime-store science fiction. Which is what I'm talking about, I should have known."
She's squinting at me. It's an effort sometimes, figuring me out. Do you understand, she seems to be saying, what an effort it is?
"So...when you first got in touch with them," she says.
"Yes?"
"And you sent them your application."
"Yes."
"You thought they were legitimate. But now you don't."
"No. The point is this is clearly not a legitimate company. Was never. Which I didn't know enough then to know whether it was."
Shannon nods twice. She clicks her tongue against the roof of her mouth. "Ok. Now how would you feel if they had accepted your application?" She has a slightly triumphant, professorial manner to her. She believes she has found the crux of everything.
But it's not the rejection, or it's not just the rejection. Although, when I think about it, who knew the industry was this selective? Who would guess that aspiring mothers-aspirants-driven to this particular exigency could be so damn choosy? They must sort through the genomes like wallpaper patterns. Well, sure, he's healthy and HIV-negative and college-educated, and there's not a single misdemeanor or felony arrest, but look over there, see? He finger-paints. And his grandmother had colon cancer and his great aunt had a hysterectomy when she was 67. And he's vulnerable to hay fever. We can do better....
"They could do worse than me," I say.
"Of course they could," she says, nodding emphatically.
"For all they know, for all anyone knows, somebody's wife-beater genes are, you know, being implanted in wombs across America. Molestation genes. They let all that shit through, and then something unbelievably minor shows up and...and down comes the portcullis."
"What's a portcullis?"
"You know, that...grating thing."
"Oh."
"On the door of a castle."
"Right." Shannon tugs at the hem of her bandleader skirt, rubs her fingers together. "You know what I'm going to say," she says.
I honestly don't.
"How the world? Being the way it is?" she says.
"Yeah?"
"You're going to make me say it, aren't you?"
"Yeah."
"All right." She rehearses the words silently for a few seconds. "A gay man," she says. "A gay man is not going to be picked to spawn new generations. I mean, it's awful, but that's the world."
My left knee, out of nowhere, starts doing its agitato dance. The sidecar, balanced on my thigh, bounces along. "Actually," I say, "I didn't tell them that part."
"Which part?"
"The gay part."
There is a charged silence from the rattan throne. A sigh of apprehension. "Haaa-haanh," it sounds like.
I am looking away now, but I know what's happening: Her left eyebrow is trembling with irony; her lips are sphinctering together, to avoid all possibility of irony. I start talking into my drink. "There was a process to this, right? The first two times, I just laid out the facts. I told them everything. Because maybe these are progressive kinds of places, with hip moms and dads, you know, twin Volvos and funky credit cards and random acts of kindness, you know? Come in, maybe, and look over the data and kind of like all the rest of the stuff and maybe they're willing to overlook the one part."
"Uh huh."
"So when I got turned down, I figured well, wrong, Nick. 'Cause parents aren't progressive about their own kids. So the third time around...."
"Uh huh."
"That was the one thing I changed. By change I mean I didn't mention it. They asked: 'Have you had sexual encounters with men?' And I just left it blank. But everything else was right on."
"So just a little illegal," Shannon says.
"I don't know. I didn't think much about it."
Which is not really true. In fact, as soon as I found myself swerving, even by a small degree, from truth, a whole new realm of license opened up in my mind. I thought: If I can change this one elemental part of me, why can't I create an entirely new Nicholas? Give myself a more attractive birthplace (screw Norfolk). A Stanford education. A graduate degree in international finance.
And then start in on the whole Broome clan. That wacky bunch of nonagenarians! Feisty, cancer-free. Poets and silversmiths and squash champions. My sister: an archeologist, sieving Etruscan crockery out of Sicilian ruins. My brother: healing Kurdish lepers. My parents: eccentric venture capitalists riding the bull-market rodeo.
Oh, what I could have created! But I didn't. I ran straight up the high road. And not from principle but from paranoia, the kind only a technological ignoramus could entertain. I was convinced that Capitol Cryobank had computer applications that would sniff out deceit, flag even the subtlest forms of wish fulfillment. Maybe I gave them too much credit; almost certainly I did.
"You know what?" Shannon says. She's craning her neck, looking for our waitress, who was last seen about 20 minutes ago. "Even if you left it blank? It wouldn't matter because they probably assume no answer means guilt." She shrugs. "The only reason I mention it is ethically you're off the hook."
"I don't care about the ethics," I say. "It was an experiment. The first two were the control, right, and the third one was the variable."
"So...." She's turned herself around now. She's waving both hands at the waitress, like a gospel preacher. "So the experiment failed."
"Well...yeah. I mean, in the sense they blew me off. Yeah."
She turns back around. "No no no. Nicky, listen to me. It's a credit to you it failed! You don't want to be fathering those little evil mall kids...." She makes a small shudder for me. "All the shoes you would have to buy. The shoes alone, Nicky. Listen," she says. "Who gives a shit if they blew you off? It's, like, a badge of honor."
She doesn't get it. I haven't made it clear. It's not the rejection-really-it's just I had this vision of how it would be. In this vision, I'm making the weekly trip to the Manassas, Virginia, headquarters of Capitol Cryobank. I leave early, a little after seven, to beat the traffic. Something baroque is playing on the classical music station. Sound walls-limestone and beige-line the highway, and peering over them are the emptied balconies of Arlington condos and brick ramblers, four decades old. I drive alongside the high-voltage fences of the Metro tracks, and my car easily outpaces the westbound Orange Line train, chugging toward Vienna.
I see the familiar names, the Beltway outposts: Falls Church, Fairfax, Reston. I am going home. To where I grew up. Ravens on power lines. Oaks and sycamores and Virginia pine. Park-and-rides and half-built town homes with Arthurian names. Wal-Mart and Kohl's and the headquarters of the National Rifle Association.
Within 50 minutes, the outskirts of Manassas materialize. I ease off the highway, and two minutes later I'm turning into the Cryobank headquarters, in a small office park with pebbled sidewalks. I park my Toyota Camry in Space Number 23. I walk into the onyx building, give my name to the receptionist. The physician's assistant, an attractive young Asian woman with teardrop earrings, smiles as she bumps open an oak-paneled side door with her hip and motions me to follow. She leads me down a long hallway with a shell-colored carpet. Formaldehyde tickles my nostrils. My ears pick out the diaphanous strains of Enya.
The usual southern view, the woman says.
Thank you, I say.
She hands me three medium-sized glass vials, a box of Kleenex, a back issue of Pro Wrestler magazine. Will you be needing anything else, Mr. Broome?
Thank you, no.
She doesn't bother asking me the other things. The things you ask the first-timers. Have you ejaculated within the last 48 hours? Have you engaged in any strenuous physical activity within the last eight hours?
All righty, then, she says.I'll let you get to it.
The door closes behind her. I stand by the window, watching Jeeps and Mercury Villagers assemble in the parking lot below. I am thinking about fish. I am spooling out the life history of a male Atlantic herring: the shock of birth; the scaling of the food pyramid; the senseless locomotion of adolescence. I see his entire destiny, right up to the unforeseen moment when the female next door, answering signals he doesn't even recognize, lets loose with a platoon of eggs for his benediction.
Come on, kid, I'm whispering in the herring's ear. Do your stuff. Make your old man proud. Attaboy.
My hand is playing with the zipper of my twill trousers, and Enya is cooing in my ear, and this is how life begins....
"The Arboretum sucks."
Shannon is back on the phone. Her legs are tucked beneath her, and her head is tossed to one side-she looks like a bobby-soxer, except for the bandito grin.
"Do you know where that is?" she's asking. "Have you been there? It's fucking Northeast D.C. Now tell me. (Nicky, the waitress. Walking down the stairs.) Tell me how many. (No, run and get her.) Reporters. (Vodka martini. Two olives.) Are going to schlep out to the fucking Arboretum?"
The waitress is wearing a field-hockey uniform and a large cloud of electric-blue hair. She writhes when I touch her shoulder. For a second, I'm convinced she's going to scream.
I clear my throat. "Vodka martini, two olives. And a sidecar, please."
She gives me a brutish nod and charges down the staircase. The noise from her clogs lights sparks under her feet.
When I get back, Shannon is cooing into the phone. Such a professional seductress. She has extended one of her shapely legs; a red slingback pump with a brass buckle dangles from her big toe.
"Ok, honey, get back to me tomorrow, all right? Eight-thirtyish sound good? Ok. Bye bye." She stares at the phone for a few moments. "That was Joel," she says.
"Ah."
She lunges for her handbag, pulls out a toothpick with a small green ruff at the end, drives it into the corners of her mouth. "Barf. What were we talking about?"
"Nothing."
"Oh, the...right." Her lips flare back from her teeth. The pick darts in, wiggles out. "So what does your sister say about all this?"
"Celia doesn't know."
Shannon's eyes are large interpretive blanks. "Huh." How interesting, she seems to be saying. How engrossing.
"This is top secret," I say. "No one's supposed to know."
The waitress blows past us, blue hair rippling like a sapphire, the pleats of her tartan skirt emitting an audible hum. The glasses fly from her tray, make a concussive landing on the bamboo coffee table.
"I'm doing this on my own," I say.
Which is intended to close the matter, but the only thing that really closes it is Shannon's fatigue. The empathy is starting to wear on her.
"Don't let me go," she says, raising an index finger. "Without telling you about the U.S. News guy."
"The one...his pubes are a different color than...."
"Oh, please, that's the least. The other night? The condom starts to slip. Like, halfway through. He says, 'Well, what do you want me to do?' And I say, 'Well, what do you think I want you to do?' And the rest of the night, not a word to me. Like a little child. Like it was my fault."
Many years ago, Shannon and I almost consummated a brief love affair, and I sometimes think she tells me about her sexual exploits just to show me what I've missed. Oddly, it has the opposite effect: I feel as if I've been there the whole way, fanning my wings over the bed.
"And he makes yipping noises. Like a Pekinese...."
When we totter out an hour later, Shannon has her hand attached to my arm. She does that now and again, and for the first time I am struck by the tenderness of it. Arousing, frankly. Here it is almost ten-thirty, and when was the last time-think hard, Nick-when was the last time you got laid?
We have stopped at the corner of 8th and D. The night actually got warmer while we were inside. Barely spring, and the world is flirting with summer, and it makes you want to flirt back. I turn to look at Shannon, the way you look at someone after several hours of looking at them-as if their reality is in question. She is tugging with drunken ostentation on the gold braid of her bandleader's jacket.
"Refresh my memory," Shannon says.
"Yes."
"Why is this so important to you? No." She shakes something out of her brain. "Forget that one. What interests me is the deadline. Why does it have to happen now?" Both of her hands hoop around my elbow. "Tell Shanny Girl."
"You're in no condition to discuss this."
"Am too."
"You won't even remember."
"I will. Tell Shanny Girl. Big rush, what's the big rush?"
She's yanking on my arm, and my balance is already a little suspect, and I see the two of us coming undone, shattering, our limbs settling into a big jumble on the pavement. It would take us the whole night to reconstruct: femurs, tibias, patellae....
"I have a year," I say. "I have less than a year to conceive a child."


Read More Show Less

First Chapter

Chapter

It's when you've been rejected by your third sperm bank that your life, such as it is, begs to be reconsidered.
So that's what I've been doing these last wet days of March, two weeks past my 34th birthday. Taking the scratchy woolen sock that is Nicholas and turning it inside out and shaking it clean. Mostly, though, I've been thinking about Atlantic herring. These are fish that travel in large schools and reproduce about as casually as I untangle phone cords: When they're ready, they just gather in the same vicinity and, on the count of three, divest themselves of eggs and sperm. No courtship rituals. No ecstatic unions. No lace valances in the nursery. They scatter their seed, they swim on. The rest of their lives stretches before them like a putting green. Maybe one night in forty they wonder how their little soldiers have made out, but mostly they swim.
I think about the Atlantic herring because, apparently, I have been trying to become one. The latest letter seems to acknowledge this, subtly: It refers to me as an "aspirant."

Dear Aspirant,

Thank you for your interest in Capitol Cryobank. At the present time, however, we find ourselves in a surplus situation, insofar as supply far exceeds current demand. Consequently, we are unable to consider even worthy candidates at this time.

You may be assured that we will keep your application on file and will contact you should any future need arise.

We thank you again for your interest....


All very businesslike. The vague reference to "worthy candidates," for instance, the unwavering politeness. I nearly choked the first time I read it. Maybe if they'd known how hard it was to find them in the first place, how I spent the better part of a day calling around to OB/GYN offices and fertility centers looking for names, names. The longer it went, the crazier I got.
"All I want to do is donate some sperm!" That's what I blurted to the receptionist in Gaithersburg. "The rest of it doesn't matter," I said. "Really. You wouldn't have to hear from me ever again."
"I'm sorry," the woman said. "As a rule, we import from California."
Which threw me, I admit. California?
"In addition to which," the woman said, "we cannot take these kinds of inquiries over the phone."
"Can I make an appointment with someone?"
"Well, you can, but not here."
"Why not?"
"Because our sperm comes from California."
I said, "Maybe if I telephoned you from California...."
"Now you're being silly," she said.
It was like that the whole afternoon. I couldn't shake the feeling that everyone I talked to, by prearranged agreement, was trying to stop me. Stop me outright or just send me down unprofitable side routes.
"Now let me get this straight," said one woman. (They did all seem to be women.) "You want to donate or you want to freeze your own?"
"I don't want to freeze anything," I said. "I just want to leave my sample and go home."
By four-thirty in the afternoon, I was sagging in my swivel chair, staring at the crumbling tile on the office ceiling, trying to decide if I could go on. I could. I could make one more call, to a scratchy-voiced woman from the Franconia Family Complex, who gave my question about two seconds of thought and said, "Well, there is Capitol Cryobank. Out in Manassas."
At which point I was so tired I failed to detect the anomaly: "Capitol Cryobank," located not in the monumental corridor of Washington, D.C., but in the suburban splatter of Manassas, Virginia. Which begged the question of why it bothered to call itself "Capitol." What patriotic imperative, what call to arms was this?
But that was the name I was given, so that's the name I went with. Clearly, my desperation got the better of me, caused me to become emotionally invested in what, for all I know, is a borderline Chapter 11 operation. The name alone should have warned me, and if not the name, the 12-page questionnaire they sent.
Understand, I didn't go down this path with any illusions. I expected questions. I recognized that the sperm highway needs tollkeepers. But these inquisitions! My job, my salary, hobbies, sports, sleeping rhythms, politics. Every last offshoot of the family tree. I was asked the medical histories of women I've never met, women who came of age in mill towns and wore cloches and danced the Lindy. How the fuck should I know?
But I soldiered on. I checked off all the medical conditions that could possibly apply (warts/moles, deviated septum), answered everything as best I could, stuffed the sheaf of paper into the pre-stamped envelope, dropped it in the mailbox the next morning, and waited patiently for The Call. And The Call turned out to be a form letter on pomegranate card stock.
Which, believe it or not, was a step up from the previous responses.
At least the first place I tried had a sweet-voiced young receptionist. "Reproductive Re-sources," she said, and as she spoke, a picture emerged in my mind: an auburn-haired colleen with a big, heart-shaped locket and freckles running across the bridge of her nose. She called me "Mr. Broome," which in the context I appreciated, and she didn't seem to mind all the questions. She was prodigiously patient.
"I'm curious about the afterward part," I said. "I mean, say there's a child that actually results from this. Would I ever know? Do they let you know?"
"No, sir. We would need to protect the privacy of the parents and, of course, the child. As I'm sure you understand."
"Oh, that's cool. That's, no, I just.... Ok, say the child grows up. Turns 18, 21, whatever the age is and wants to get in touch. Can he do that? She. He, she."
"No, sir. We keep your medical information on file, naturally, but your name would not be attached to it."
"Oh."
"That's how we protect all the parties involved. Including yourself, Mr. Broome."
Such a lilt she imparted to my name. She gave it a coloratura bloom.
"No, that's fine," I said. "I'm perfectly comfortable with that."
"And are there any other questions you have at this time?" she asked.
I wanted to keep talking. I wanted to listen to her bell-chime voice for the rest of my life....
"No," I said. "I think that's about it."
"Ok, Mr. Broome, my name is Tammy. If you have any questions in the future, please don't hesitate to call us."
That rejection arrived three weeks ago: a Xeroxed form letter that began, "I'm afraid we have some disappointing news...." I called about the possibility of appeal. I left a long and I think coherent message, specifically requesting Tammy. I said, "Tammy has already spent a great deal of time with me on the phone, and I would like to discuss with her whether these decisions are irrevocable. Or whether there are materials I could send in that would bolster my candidacy." I think I kept it under five minutes, but I suspect my message is now Diagram C in the training-course syllabus: Stalkers, Prevention and Handling of.
Tammy never did return my call, but that spark of human contact gave me the momentum to take on Fertility Emporium, an enterprise with no street address and endless tunnels of voice-mail options, mazes with no center. At each mailbox, the same ersatz female, speaking in the same computerized timbre, said: "The party you are seeking is not available. At the tone, please leave your name and number. When you have finished...."
Who were these parties? What species? I couldn't evoke a single freckled colleen from their ranks. All I could imagine, after days of message-leaving, was that they were operating a virtual sperm bank, and every morning I would hook up my dick to a modem and fire off a load of digitized seed and receive a two-line e-mail bulletin whenever contact was made....
In all, I left six messages at Fertility Emporium. To this day, not one has been answered. For all I know, they're gathering my sperm as I sleep.
Sometime around Valentine's Day (and what a discouraging holiday that was) I had an epiphany: The direct engagement of sperm banks was a fool's game. Because, and don't we all know this, proper channels are for suckers. Wasn't it entirely possible that just beyond the line of everyday consciousness lay a vast black market of sperma byzantine underworld accessed by passwords, casually dropped names. "You don't know me, but my friend Gameto suggested I call...."
In quick succession, I telephoned five OB/GYN offices in the Bethesda area. As soon as a human came on the line, I made the usual discreet inquiries, and then, the moment the wall reared up, I'd shift into conspiracy gear, collapse my voice into a faintly European register.
"So that's what you're telling me," I'd say. "On the record."
"Yes, sir."
"So maybe now we can talk about some other way."
Whereupon the receptionist-we'll typify her as a grandmotherly sort named Eileen-would say, "I'm sorry?"
"I mean, since we're both adults. All I'm saying is maybe you know someone. Who can refer me to someone...."
And Eileen would say, "Someone what?"
"Someone who...." Here's where my resolve would begin to falter. "...who knows about some other way of doing it. Not through channels."
Whereupon Eileen, watching the phone lines light up like Roman candles, would say, "Sir, if you or your wife need an appointment, I would be happy to set up a time."
The humiliation and, yes, the surrealism. When did it become this hard to give away your sperm? From all I've read, from all I've ever heard, college boys have been making quick bucks at this for years. Successive generations of young men, astonished at not having corsage money for their house-party dates, have hightailed it to the nearest clinic, shut themselves in a closet and, a couple of yanks later, emerged fifty bucks richer. Isn't this how it's always worked?
I can't help thinking that if I were still in college, still an inchoate being, I would have a much better chance of being selected than I do now. It's living that has disqualified me. It's being alive at the front end of the 21st century...fatally compromising. The tollkeepers want none of me.
"I should have known better."
That's what I tell my friend Shannon. Shannon knows I need sympathy, so she provides it the way she knows how, which is to take me to a piano bar on Capitol Hill, across the street from a boarded-up lesbian bar, and treat me to one round of my favorite drink (sidecar) and interrupt our conversation every time her cell phone rings.
"Shit!" Up comes the index finger. "Ok, sorry, just...hold the thought, all right?" Out comes the little espionage phone from her black Fendi bag-she starts speaking before it even reaches her lips. "This is Shannon. Yeah. Hi." Her eyes roll a little, for my benefit. "No, I haven't heard back, but remember what I said? The Times is very low odds. Ten quintillion op-eds a day, so it's ten quintillion to one. Right. Right."
Shannon is wearing a bright red mini-dress with large brass buttons; it looks like the top half of a bandleader's uniform. More and more, she is dressing like a blonde, although she has the darkest coloring I've ever seen on a blue-eyed woman.
"So I'll let you know as soon as I hear," Shannon says. "Ok? And if it doesn't fly there, we try the Post, the Journal. But you gotta be patient on this, ok, Harold? Ok. All right." The phone vanishes into the handbag. She takes a draft of air. "Fucking. Idiot."
She is sitting on a rattan throne, next to a sagging rubber tree, and behind her a black woman in an enormous anthracite wig is playing "The Girl from Ipanema" on a baby grand. Shannon claims to hate the music here, but now and again you can see her lips moving, almost sulkily, to the words.
"O-kay," she says, drawing herself back together. "You were saying...."
"That I'm a fucking idiot."
"Oh, right."
"Even trying to negotiate with these places, playing their ridiculous fucking games. Giving my family's medical histories to...to men in dingy lab coats. Men with phony stethoscopes."
She nods absently. "Tell me the name of that last place again."
"Capitol Cryobank."
"Hmm," she says.
"Does that inspire trust in you? Cry-o-bank. Is any trust inspired by this name?"
"Um." She frowns a little, eyes me over her vodka martini. "I don't know about trust. Maybe science fiction it inspires."
"Exactly. That's my exact point. Dime-store science fiction. Which is what I'm talking about, I should have known."
She's squinting at me. It's an effort sometimes, figuring me out. Do you understand, she seems to be saying, what an effort it is?
"So...when you first got in touch with them," she says.
"Yes?"
"And you sent them your application."
"Yes."
"You thought they were legitimate. But now you don't."
"No. The point is this is clearly not a legitimate company. Was never. Which I didn't know enough then to know whether it was."
Shannon nods twice. She clicks her tongue against the roof of her mouth. "Ok. Now how would you feel if they had accepted your application?" She has a slightly triumphant, professorial manner to her. She believes she has found the crux of everything.
But it's not the rejection, or it's not just the rejection. Although, when I think about it, who knew the industry was this selective? Who would guess that aspiring mothers-aspirants-driven to this particular exigency could be so damn choosy? They must sort through the genomes like wallpaper patterns. Well, sure, he's healthy and HIV-negative and college-educated, and there's not a single misdemeanor or felony arrest, but look over there, see? He finger-paints. And his grandmother had colon cancer and his great aunt had a hysterectomy when she was 67. And he's vulnerable to hay fever. We can do better....
"They could do worse than me," I say.
"Of course they could," she says, nodding emphatically.
"For all they know, for all anyone knows, somebody's wife-beater genes are, you know, being implanted in wombs across America. Molestation genes. They let all that shit through, and then something unbelievably minor shows up and...and down comes the portcullis."
"What's a portcullis?"
"You know, that...grating thing."
"Oh."
"On the door of a castle."
"Right." Shannon tugs at the hem of her bandleader skirt, rubs her fingers together. "You know what I'm going to say," she says.
I honestly don't.
"How the world? Being the way it is?" she says.
"Yeah?"
"You're going to make me say it, aren't you?"
"Yeah."
"All right." She rehearses the words silently for a few seconds. "A gay man," she says. "A gay man is not going to be picked to spawn new generations. I mean, it's awful, but that's the world."
My left knee, out of nowhere, starts doing its agitato dance. The sidecar, balanced on my thigh, bounces along. "Actually," I say, "I didn't tell them that part."
"Which part?"
"The gay part."
There is a charged silence from the rattan throne. A sigh of apprehension. "Haaa-haanh," it sounds like.
I am looking away now, but I know what's happening: Her left eyebrow is trembling with irony; her lips are sphinctering together, to avoid all possibility of irony. I start talking into my drink. "There was a process to this, right? The first two times, I just laid out the facts. I told them everything. Because maybe these are progressive kinds of places, with hip moms and dads, you know, twin Volvos and funky credit cards and random acts of kindness, you know? Come in, maybe, and look over the data and kind of like all the rest of the stuff and maybe they're willing to overlook the one part."
"Uh huh."
"So when I got turned down, I figured well, wrong, Nick. 'Cause parents aren't progressive about their own kids. So the third time around...."
"Uh huh."
"That was the one thing I changed. By change I mean I didn't mention it. They asked: 'Have you had sexual encounters with men?' And I just left it blank. But everything else was right on."
"So just a little illegal," Shannon says.
"I don't know. I didn't think much about it."
Which is not really true. In fact, as soon as I found myself swerving, even by a small degree, from truth, a whole new realm of license opened up in my mind. I thought: If I can change this one elemental part of me, why can't I create an entirely new Nicholas? Give myself a more attractive birthplace (screw Norfolk). A Stanford education. A graduate degree in international finance.
And then start in on the whole Broome clan. That wacky bunch of nonagenarians! Feisty, cancer-free. Poets and silversmiths and squash champions. My sister: an archeologist, sieving Etruscan crockery out of Sicilian ruins. My brother: healing Kurdish lepers. My parents: eccentric venture capitalists riding the bull-market rodeo.
Oh, what I could have created! But I didn't. I ran straight up the high road. And not from principle but from paranoia, the kind only a technological ignoramus could entertain. I was convinced that Capitol Cryobank had computer applications that would sniff out deceit, flag even the subtlest forms of wish fulfillment. Maybe I gave them too much credit; almost certainly I did.
"You know what?" Shannon says. She's craning her neck, looking for our waitress, who was last seen about 20 minutes ago. "Even if you left it blank? It wouldn't matter because they probably assume no answer means guilt." She shrugs. "The only reason I mention it is ethically you're off the hook."
"I don't care about the ethics," I say. "It was an experiment. The first two were the control, right, and the third one was the variable."
"So...." She's turned herself around now. She's waving both hands at the waitress, like a gospel preacher. "So the experiment failed."
"Well...yeah. I mean, in the sense they blew me off. Yeah."
She turns back around. "No no no. Nicky, listen to me. It's a credit to you it failed! You don't want to be fathering those little evil mall kids...." She makes a small shudder for me. "All the shoes you would have to buy. The shoes alone, Nicky. Listen," she says. "Who gives a shit if they blew you off? It's, like, a badge of honor."
She doesn't get it. I haven't made it clear. It's not the rejection-really-it's just I had this vision of how it would be. In this vision, I'm making the weekly trip to the Manassas, Virginia, headquarters of Capitol Cryobank. I leave early, a little after seven, to beat the traffic. Something baroque is playing on the classical music station. Sound walls-limestone and beige-line the highway, and peering over them are the emptied balconies of Arlington condos and brick ramblers, four decades old. I drive alongside the high-voltage fences of the Metro tracks, and my car easily outpaces the westbound Orange Line train, chugging toward Vienna.
I see the familiar names, the Beltway outposts: Falls Church, Fairfax, Reston. I am going home. To where I grew up. Ravens on power lines. Oaks and sycamores and Virginia pine. Park-and-rides and half-built town homes with Arthurian names. Wal-Mart and Kohl's and the headquarters of the National Rifle Association.
Within 50 minutes, the outskirts of Manassas materialize. I ease off the highway, and two minutes later I'm turning into the Cryobank headquarters, in a small office park with pebbled sidewalks. I park my Toyota Camry in Space Number 23. I walk into the onyx building, give my name to the receptionist. The physician's assistant, an attractive young Asian woman with teardrop earrings, smiles as she bumps open an oak-paneled side door with her hip and motions me to follow. She leads me down a long hallway with a shell-colored carpet. Formaldehyde tickles my nostrils. My ears pick out the diaphanous strains of Enya.
The usual southern view, the woman says.
Thank you, I say.
She hands me three medium-sized glass vials, a box of Kleenex, a back issue of Pro Wrestler magazine. Will you be needing anything else, Mr. Broome?
Thank you, no.
She doesn't bother asking me the other things. The things you ask the first-timers. Have you ejaculated within the last 48 hours? Have you engaged in any strenuous physical activity within the last eight hours?
All righty, then, she says.I'll let you get to it.
The door closes behind her. I stand by the window, watching Jeeps and Mercury Villagers assemble in the parking lot below. I am thinking about fish. I am spooling out the life history of a male Atlantic herring: the shock of birth; the scaling of the food pyramid; the senseless locomotion of adolescence. I see his entire destiny, right up to the unforeseen moment when the female next door, answering signals he doesn't even recognize, lets loose with a platoon of eggs for his benediction.
Come on, kid, I'm whispering in the herring's ear. Do your stuff. Make your old man proud. Attaboy.
My hand is playing with the zipper of my twill trousers, and Enya is cooing in my ear, and this is how life begins....
"The Arboretum sucks."
Shannon is back on the phone. Her legs are tucked beneath her, and her head is tossed to one side-she looks like a bobby-soxer, except for the bandito grin.
"Do you know where that is?" she's asking. "Have you been there? It's fucking Northeast D.C. Now tell me. (Nicky, the waitress. Walking down the stairs.) Tell me how many. (No, run and get her.) Reporters. (Vodka martini. Two olives.) Are going to schlep out to the fucking Arboretum?"
The waitress is wearing a field-hockey uniform and a large cloud of electric-blue hair. She writhes when I touch her shoulder. For a second, I'm convinced she's going to scream.
I clear my throat. "Vodka martini, two olives. And a sidecar, please."
She gives me a brutish nod and charges down the staircase. The noise from her clogs lights sparks under her feet.
When I get back, Shannon is cooing into the phone. Such a professional seductress. She has extended one of her shapely legs; a red slingback pump with a brass buckle dangles from her big toe.
"Ok, honey, get back to me tomorrow, all right? Eight-thirtyish sound good? Ok. Bye bye." She stares at the phone for a few moments. "That was Joel," she says.
"Ah."
She lunges for her handbag, pulls out a toothpick with a small green ruff at the end, drives it into the corners of her mouth. "Barf. What were we talking about?"
"Nothing."
"Oh, the...right." Her lips flare back from her teeth. The pick darts in, wiggles out. "So what does your sister say about all this?"
"Celia doesn't know."
Shannon's eyes are large interpretive blanks. "Huh." How interesting, she seems to be saying. How engrossing.
"This is top secret," I say. "No one's supposed to know."
The waitress blows past us, blue hair rippling like a sapphire, the pleats of her tartan skirt emitting an audible hum. The glasses fly from her tray, make a concussive landing on the bamboo coffee table.
"I'm doing this on my own," I say.
Which is intended to close the matter, but the only thing that really closes it is Shannon's fatigue. The empathy is starting to wear on her.
"Don't let me go," she says, raising an index finger. "Without telling you about the U.S. News guy."
"The one...his pubes are a different color than...."
"Oh, please, that's the least. The other night? The condom starts to slip. Like, halfway through. He says, 'Well, what do you want me to do?' And I say, 'Well, what do you think I want you to do?' And the rest of the night, not a word to me. Like a little child. Like it was my fault."
Many years ago, Shannon and I almost consummated a brief love affair, and I sometimes think she tells me about her sexual exploits just to show me what I've missed. Oddly, it has the opposite effect: I feel as if I've been there the whole way, fanning my wings over the bed.
"And he makes yipping noises. Like a Pekinese...."
When we totter out an hour later, Shannon has her hand attached to my arm. She does that now and again, and for the first time I am struck by the tenderness of it. Arousing, frankly. Here it is almost ten-thirty, and when was the last time-think hard, Nick-when was the last time you got laid?
We have stopped at the corner of 8th and D. The night actually got warmer while we were inside. Barely spring, and the world is flirting with summer, and it makes you want to flirt back. I turn to look at Shannon, the way you look at someone after several hours of looking at them-as if their reality is in question. She is tugging with drunken ostentation on the gold braid of her bandleader's jacket.
"Refresh my memory," Shannon says.
"Yes."
"Why is this so important to you? No." She shakes something out of her brain. "Forget that one. What interests me is the deadline. Why does it have to happen now?" Both of her hands hoop around my elbow. "Tell Shanny Girl."
"You're in no condition to discuss this."
"Am too."
"You won't even remember."
"I will. Tell Shanny Girl. Big rush, what's the big rush?"
She's yanking on my arm, and my balance is already a little suspect, and I see the two of us coming undone, shattering, our limbs settling into a big jumble on the pavement. It would take us the whole night to reconstruct: femurs, tibias, patellae....
"I have a year," I say. "I have less than a year to conceive a child."
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