Like most men, I’ve always considered myself excellent at masturbating.
For my entire life I’ve been able to do this with virtually no provocation and in any circumstance, including one time in a coatroom in a church basement after an oddly arousing funeral reception. I could do it with great, almost embarrassing speed. It was both a gift and a cultivated skill and the honest truth is that it’s something I’ve always been proud of. If I were to have a superhero skill, this would be it. I might not be able to do much on the pommel horse or touch the rim (or net) of a basketball hoop or drive a car, but I could jerk off like a goddamn superstar, and it was the one category in which I knew I would always get the blue ribbon.
About a year ago my wife and I decided to try in vitro fertilization in the hopes of starting a family. Although I contain only trace amounts of testosterone and my sperm is deficient by every conceivable measurement, my masturbatory delivery system was infallible and top of the line, like it was constructed by the American military. I would be able to do my part!
It should be said that my wife had to endure a world of misery as we passed through this process. There were demoralizing rules imposed upon her that forced her to step outside of her life and cease being who she was, and then there was the medication. It was endless, it came in all forms, and it had to be taken constantly. Designed to make her body behave unnaturally, it was like a cruel experiment more than an optimistic helping hand from science, and while she was subject to this, all I had to do was occasionally jerk off into a cup—something I actually enjoyed, like watching a really good, tense baseball game.
When called to act, I was asked to do so on the premises of the fertility clinic. In theory I found this kind of exciting. A new environment! One full of women wanting to get pregnant! Nurses! Doctors! Lab coats! It was like a porn fantasy!
But it wasn’t.
Instead of being led to some iteration of that Eyes Wide Shut bacchanal, I was taken to a very small and very hot (in temperature) room. I looked about for my masturbation kit and found some ratty assembly of Barely Legal, Asian Fever and Perfect 10. This wouldn’t do. Other men had probably put their dicks on these magazines. Other men had breathed their lust and desperation upon these things. The pages of these magazines were “damaged.”
There was also a computer that sat at a small desk. You were not allowed to go online and search out things that might have some particular erotic appeal to you, but were given a loop of joyless videos of professional porn. And so I had to watch unimaginative clips of women with fake breasts and angry expressions on their faces getting fucked by muscular gay men covered in tattoos again and again and again. Concussive and corrosive rather than caressing, the videos gave me the claustrophobic sensation that I was trapped in the serial killer pit in The Silence of the Lambs. I needed something subtler, something gentler.
But I was determined, and I must have spent nearly an hour in the masturbation box trying to induce a “sample” out of myself, becoming increasingly convinced that I was destined to die of a heart attack in that airless chamber, collapsing in front of an endless nightmare of simulated sex and becoming a lingering, ghostly shame to all who had known me. Unsuccessful, chaffed and exhausted, I had to leave and go for a walk.
The staff looked at me with astonishment, as if “taking a break” was absolutely unprecedented. The presiding nurse told me that the room was booked for the next man and that I had less than 15 minutes left to discharge my duties. I nodded numbly. “I’ll be back in just a few minutes.”
I wandered around the lower floors of the hospital trying to get quickly turned on. I flipped through copies of Vogue and Elle in the gift shop, but of course this just made me feel incredibly creepy and shameful. Amidst ill people with IV poles and a traumatized family buying get-well-soon cards for loved ones, I was trying to get horny. Not only was I failing my wife by being unable to perform my one small function in this process, I was also failing the world by being so gross. I had never been less aroused in my life.
In spite of this, I returned to the masturbation box with about five minutes left on the clock, and I worked furiously away. “If I don’t jerk off in time, the world will explode,” I told myself. “If I can do this in the next two minutes, cancer will be eradicated! World hunger will end!” I made a kind action movie out of my efforts to masturbate, with the throbbing porn soundtrack serving as the score to my film, and then there was a sharp knocking on the door. Instinctively, as if I was 14 and my mother was about to catch me in the act, I zipped up my pants and turned off the computer.
“Mr. Murray, we need the room now. Do you have the sample?”
“No, I’m so sorry,” I whispered, “I’ve failed.”
And then from behind the door, stifled laughter.
Still from Fast Times at Ridgemont High