On Monday afternoon, with significant tooth pain, skyrocketing anxiety, and a gap in my teeth you could drive a banjo through, I found myself sitting with two other men in the lobby of the urologist’s office. As is natural to our species, the three of us were randomly seated as far apart from one another as possible, not talking. We looked like frightened strays at an animal shelter, heads down, laptops between our legs.
As we waited, I distracted myself by running my tongue through the great divide between my teeth, where half of a tooth had dropped out Saturday. I would like to report that it happened on a rigorous bike ride, in the weight room, or during a struggle in which using only my courage, a heavily worn snow shovel, and my teeth, I had subdued two armed terrorists. As it turns out, and as a humbling precursor to turning 53, I lost half of my upper right molar chewing on a soggy, reheated cheese quesadilla.
At first, I thought the hard thing in my mouth was a piece of the plate that had somehow chipped off. But about a millisecond later, I realized what had actually happened as a hot piece of cheese wedged itself against the newly exposed section of my tooth, which I then frantically tried to dislodge with a swig of ice cold water. Welcome to Guantanamo Bay, home of water boarding and the cheese quesadilla; tell us what you know.
Naturally, the urologist’s office is populated with nothing but female nurses in their 30’s. One of them popped her perky head out and called for a Mr Walter, which snapped me out of my dental reverie and shot Mr Walker clean out of his chair as if someone had sent a charge through his reproductive network. Saying “Go-kay,” (which must have been a cross between “good” and “O.K.”) at a decibel level that would suggest either he or the nurse was deaf, Mr Walker then marched into the exam room, leaving his laptop, briefcase, jacket and phone on the chair where he had been sitting. Fifteen seconds later, looking extremely sheepish, he was back collecting his things before the nurse reeled him back in.
Nothing to it. No big deal. Man up. This is the only way I have heard a vasectomy described by the few friends of mine who even bother to talk about it. These Stepford Husbands all seemed to have left the doctor’s perfectly programmed. Ho-hum. Snip snip. It’s off to work we go. I never bought it, and the little voice in my head has always been quick to highlight a few key facts, which when taken together, rank a vasectomy high on my “things to be traumatized by” list just above a root canal, self immolation, or placing your head in a running wood chipper. To be specific, bellowed the little voice, this doctor, some guy who still gets carded at local bars, who I have “known” for all of ten minutes, will have a scalpel in one hand and one or both of my testicles in his other. Where is the calm in that math?
Ten years ago I promised my wife I would get a vasectomy, though I had been somewhat vague on the timing. Unfortunately for me, the rubber hit the road, so to speak, with the dawn of 2011, and a mandate from my wife that the cookie jar would be officially closed until I got a pink snippet from my doctor. Apparently my excuses, though brilliant, had worn thin. They had ranged from the practical, “what if we want more kids” (our youngest is now 10), and “there don’t seem to be any urologists in the tri-state area,” to the conceptual, “do you know how many people die while driving to the doctor’s office? “ When those failed, I retreated to alleged scheduling conflicts and miscommunications, “You mean YESTERDAY was Tuesday?”
I bought a little time with a heartfelt appeal based on my primordial and mostly rational fear of any kind of surgery and my psychological road block to being put into a permanent state of neutral. I was a conscientious objector worried stiff about a mental domino effect that could leave me limping through the rest of my nearly adult life. That argument, of course, was unceremoniously neutralized one evening when one of my friends went into his whole aforementioned, “no big deal…snip, snip…you’re done…man up” speech.
“Mr. Manning?” I said nothing, trying to lose myself in the crowd, but the one other guy left in the waiting room ruined that plan when he chirped, “not me.” After his unsolicited outburst, the nurse walked right to me. “Mr Manning?” I stood up and took a deep breath through my mouth, which caused the pain in my tooth to spike and me to grimace.
“My tooth is killing me,” I explained. As I held my hand against the right side of my mouth, she marched me toward the last room on the left, asking me in the gentlest way if I was aware that the doctor was a urologist.
I opened the door, and for the first time in medical history, a doctor was on time. I couldn’t win for losing. He stood there waiting for me with a very pleasant smile and latex gloves and asked me if I had any questions about “the procedure.” Thinking “filibuster” and realizing it was now only my imaginative questions that stood between me and this vasectomy, I asked as many of the obvious ones as I could muster. Had he slept well? Any history of seizures or narcolepsy? How many fingers was I holding up? Any bouts of post traumatic stress disorder? Did I remind him of anyone who may have bullied him in school?
He answered all my questions with great patience, seriousness and consideration and then, in the same tone of voice that someone might use to comment on the weather, he told me to take off my pants, underwear, leave my undershirt and socks on, and lay back on the table. I asked him if maybe he should buy me dinner first, and he smiled, sat down, and scooted his little roller stool toward the table. As I undressed, he encouraged me to take my sweater off. “Lots of guys will sweat through their shirts,” he said. “It can be very emotional for some men.”
“Nothing to it. No big deal…”
On my back, feet in stirrups, stern flush with the end of the table, the good doctor reefing my mast head with a piece of tape to keep it stationary (“don’t want to cut anything I’m not supposed to”), and topped off and lathered with some sort of disinfectant. Hard to imagine how anyone could be emotional at this point. It’s like lying in bed with a good movie, or say, sitting in a flaming 757 plummeting in a fiery vertical dive into downtown Detroit.
“What happened to your tooth?” Given my position, I felt compelled to tell him the truth, and explained about the cheese quesadilla. I told him I had considered just keeping the gap there except that it made me look like I had stepped out of a scene from Deliverance. Not the ideal reference, I suddenly thought (“you got a purdy mouth”), given my rather vulnerable position at that particular moment. I delicately steered the conversation back to quesadillas.
As I had done frequently during my high school wrestling career, I focused intently on the ceiling, trying to envision what the good doctor was up to, simply by feel. From what I could tell, he was apparently practicing his balloon sculptures and Braille skills.
In reality, I have to admit that physically, the procedure was relatively painless. Certainly my mouth hurt a hell of a lot more than anything the doctor was working on, especially since I was alternately biting down and taking in deep breaths of cool air to keep calm. But as a Gemini, I generally have two soundtracks running. One will say, “It’s just turbulence.” The other is prone to add, “…or the tail section breaking away.” So part of me calmly registered the doctor’s soothing voice and very delicate warning that I would feel some slight discomfort and a burning sensation as he applied the anesthetic. The other part of me screamed, “RUN. NOW.” He said “small incision,” and I tensed, convinced the next sound I heard would be a chainsaw starting up. And so it went.
“One down, one to go. We’re half way home.” I was glad I wasn’t wearing my sweater.
Rinse. Repeat. And suddenly, in what couldn’t have been more than 17 hours, he was finished. “Do you remember what I said was the second most uncomfortable part of the procedure?” As I was thinking back, he rapidly removed the surgeon’s tape that had kept everything stationary. Stirrups and a bikini wax. Get a vasectomy and explore your whole feminine side.
As I took inventory and began to dress, the doctor gave me the low down on the low down. He told me no vigorous exercise for five days, including bike riding, swimming, intercourse, intercourse on a bike or while swimming, or any activity that otherwise involved moving or stopping large heavy objects with my testicles. I asked if seeing the dentist counted as a vigorous activity, and much to my horror, he said “no – the dentist should be fine.” Most important short term instruction, “Lots of ice.” Ice pack 20 minutes on, then 20 minutes off for the next 24 hours. “Ice is key the first 24 hours. Make sure you do it.”
I asked him if he was going to call or write, or was this a one-time thing. He told me we were done, unless there were complications. Feeling somewhat cheap, I gingerly headed back to the lobby. As I walked back down the hall to the front desk, every one of the nurses on staff seemed to be milling about and staring, with a look that seemed to say, “how about those stirrups?”
Due to a massive fluctuation in the space time continuum, the “procedure” had taken under an hour. So when I arrived at the dentist’s office 35 minutes later, I was 90 minutes early. When I asked the receptionist if perhaps the dentist could see me at 2:00 instead of 3:30, I was reminded of a look I got at the DMV once, when I asked if getting my car registered was going to take long.
Thirty minutes into the wait, the local anesthetic began to wear off. The rising sensation that someone was slowly backing a Buick onto my groin motivated me to approach the front desk in search of ice. As I smiled at the 2 assistants at the desk, the dentist popped her head around the corner to say hello. It was at that moment that it occurred to me that this office had been staffed by the same perky placement company that had staffed the urologist’s office. There wasn’t a male in the building.
“Any chance I can get an ice pack?” The woman looked up from the desk and said, “why?” I should have seen that coming. Not being as quick on my feet as usual, I elaborated that …I just needed one. She didn’t think they had any and got up from the desk and circulated the request throughout estrogen central. “WE GOT ICE PACKS?” Every woman in the place stuck her head into the office asking why I needed an ice pack. The dentist even came out and kindly offered some topical ointment to take the edge off my tooth, if that was the problem.
The first assistant I had spoken with then returned with a large frozen plastic Oreo Cookie (the kind you’d give to a little kid for a boo-boo), about the size of a double cheeseburger. “Will this do?” She explained to me how I could just press the flat side against my face. I stared at it incredulously, thinking that it would be just a little less conspicuous (or comfortable) than cramming a piece of carry-on luggage down the front of my pants. I gracefully declined, gave her back the Oreo and sat down, listing heavily to starboard, sinking lower and lower into the chair.
At 3:30 they called me in and started shuttling film into my mouth for x-rays, something like 18 of them. Apparently it was more difficult than I had thought to identify the missing portion of my tooth. They laid a heavy lead shield across my chest with the lower end resting against my groin, had me bite down on little pieces of film with hard edges and sharp corners, and then screamed “fire in the hole.”
At 4:00 the dentist held my X-rays up to the light with the same expression the field crew wore when they looked up at the Hindenburg docking above them. She crossed herself and announced that my teeth were a disaster and that several “could fall out at any second.” I needed a cleaning, and she also mentioned the words “root canal,” at which point I quietly repeated that I could really use an ice pack and a small caliber pistol with a single round.
When the team left to collect whatever chisels and fuses they needed, the receptionist inexplicably walked in carrying two cold-packs. “Your wife called. She said you really needed an ice pack.” If a husband asks for an ice pack in the forest, and no one is there to hear him, do you still ignore him? If I hadn’t been restricted from heavy physical activity, I would have wrestled her to the ground and given her a root canal using that big plastic Oreo and my iPhone (there’s an app for that). She handed me the packs and watched. I broke the pack, shook it, placed it on my left wrist, and smiled.
“Terrible auto-erotic accident,” I explained. In the ensuing silence, I went on to confess that I had just had a vasectomy and needed a moment of privacy so I could find a suitable home for the ice. She laughed, shook her head, and told me she thought I should “do stand-up.” After she left, I lay back in the chair, quickly stuffed the ice pack down the front of my pants, and tried to find a way to situate it so that a) it was cooling the right region and b) it didn’t look like I was smuggling a lap dog into the office. When I finally managed a perfect union of form and function, I carefully lay back and waited. A few moments later, a hygienist walked in and cheerfully let me know we would be walking to a different room for the cleaning.
It’s an art to walk and disguise the fact that you have an ice pack lodged in your pants. It makes a very audible sloshing sound and is extremely unstable. When I straightened up, it sloshed and started to slip down my left pant leg, at which point I tried to walk with my knees pressed tightly together, which in turn put a lot of unwelcome pressure between my legs. When I finally reached the next room and lay down on the chair, the ice pack had made it to the back of my knee. When the hygienist excused herself for a moment to get more gear, I carefully lifted my leg up and tried to get the ice pack to slide back down where I could reach into my pants and grab it. It slid under my thigh and lodged under my left cheek just as she reentered the room.
Thirty minutes and a lot of anxiety later, my teeth were clean, my testicles were passing hour number 4 basking at room temperature, and my thigh and ass were on the verge of frostbite. All that, and the main event hadn’t even started. When she finished and went for the dentist, I stood up and shook the ice pack down my pant leg to the floor and tried to get the feeling back in my ass.
The urologist didn’t say what would happen if I failed to use ice packs for the first 24 hours. But from the sensation I was having, I was becoming fairly convinced the answer would involve replacing my standard jock strap with a size 44 DD bra. With a rising sense of panic, I tossed the old ice pack, shook the second one to life, got it situated, and with a deep sigh, short steps and locked knees, I made my way back toward the chair. I turned around to sit, just as the dentist and her assistant walked in.
In hindsight, my mistake was the request for ice. I should have smuggled in my own and no one would have been the wiser. As it was, first the request, and then the mysterious vanishing ice packs peaked everyone’s curiosity. The question simply wouldn’t go away. And so the good doctor mentioned she was glad I got the ice, asked if I was OK, and then went on to mention that my earlier comment to her receptionist regarding a vasectomy was pretty funny.
Unconditional surrender seemed the logical course at that point, so I explained the full events of my day, right down to the hard plastic Oreo. Their reaction evolved from laughter and disbelief to surprise and the somewhat awkward realization that I was actually telling the truth. With each of them offering their sympathy and everyone generally trying to keep their eyes above my belt buckle, I teetered back to the chair for round 3.
Then, for the third time in several hours, I was staring up at a ceiling, my empty stomach in knots, completely powerless, the frenetic voice in my head railing about how the anesthetic would probably wear off the second the drill hit my tooth. I looked up at two pairs of hands and what seemed to be a full set of golf clubs that were crammed into my mouth, and repeatedly told myself to remain calm. That worked perfectly until the doctor actually began the work, at which point my body went rigid leaving me only slightly less at ease than a wildebeest that had outpaced the lions and was now floundering in a crocodile infested river. As the drill reverberated in my head, and I watched the mist spraying up from my mouth, I began to wriggle, trying to dislodge the suddenly immobile ice pack that had the remainder of the family jewels crossing the threshold from mildly chilled to hypothermic.
I got home at 7:30, snipped, crowned, tired, aching, and extremely hungry. I hadn’t eaten since 9:00 AM. Given that chewing anything denser than oatmeal was not an option, I threw caution to the wind, made a cheese quesadilla and waited for everyone to return from music lessons.
I ate standing.
I rinsed my plate and reflected on a day highlighted with shaving (as per the urologist’s orders), stirrups, stitches, smuggled ice packs, Novocain, drilling, and the gifted hands of two skilled doctors. I searched for a profound thought, but all that came to mind was this.
A dentist, a urologist and a jazz pianist walked into a bar. The bartender looked up and said, “What is this, some kind of joke.”