issue 26: September - October 2001 

 spanish translation | author bio

city.jpg (16426 bytes)City of Sperm
John Aber


By early March, well over a month had gone by. And despite my history of erratic periods, I knew something was wrong. For one thing, my breasts hurt. Sometimes, they were just a little sore. But at other times, they ached, they throbbed. I started unbuttoning my blouse or wearing a loose-fitting T-shirt when I was alone in my room, just because I didn’t like the feeling of fabric rubbing against them. I also got in the habit of pinching them. Mostly, I did this to prove to myself that they really weren’t hurting at all, to convince myself that the soreness in my breasts was brought on by my active imagination and by my own pinching and probing. The more they hurt, the more I pinched; the more I pinched, the more they hurt. It got to the point that sometimes, while lying on my back before falling asleep, I would have to put my hands under my butt and hold them there for fifteen or twenty minutes, just to keep them away from my chest.
      There was nausea too. It wasn’t always in the morning, and it didn’t occur every day. But I knew it wasn’t normal. I blamed my sickness on the strange smells of the chemicals in the science building at school. I blamed my mother’s cooking. I blamed the salt that the road crews would use to melt the snow in front of my house. I even blamed the old shock absorbers and loose suspension system in my Volkswagen and the bright orange counter tops in my mother’s kitchen. One morning after driving my friend Cindy to school, I opened the car door and threw up right there in the parking lot, staining the dirty asphalt with the milky, grainy remnants of my breakfast. Cindy looked at me and told me I had better go home or at least go visit the school nurse’s office. "It’s this sweater I’m wearing," I said. "It has a weird, funny smell." Cindy stepped around my vomit and came over to me. "It smells fine," she said, leaning toward my chest and sniffing the air around me. "It’s your head that’s weird and funny."
      My attempt to deny my pregnancy wasn’t constant. I mentioned to Robbie more than once that I was late and that I was concerned. But his denial fueled mine and helped keep it going, maybe a lot longer than it should have. When I first told him I was late, just about a week or two after my period should have arrived in early February, he was quick to point out that there was no cause for worry. "You’re late a lot," he said. "Teenage girls are always late." I soon changed the subject, relieved at not having to talk any more about it.
      A week or so later, I told him again that I hadn’t started yet. "You’ve been late before, haven’t you?" He shrugged his shoulders ever so slightly, and it was apparent that he was making a statement and not really asking a question.
      "Yes," I said. "You know that."
      "Then we’ll wait a few more days and see if you start. If you don’t, we’ll have to find out for sure. Doesn’t that make sense?" Robbie put his hands on my shoulders as he spoke, almost as if he were trying to hold me down and keep me from going somewhere.
      I hated it when he tried to pretend he was more logical than I was. But I had to agree with him. It was probably nothing. The vomiting, the sore breasts, the extreme sleepiness I was starting to feel—all of these were just tricks my adolescent body was playing on me. Tricks to make me think I was pregnant when I wasn’t. I had once read in a magazine somewhere that a teenage girl’s body can conspire against her in all kinds of ways. So I knew that there were things inside me - hormones, demons, enzymes, fairies - that could make a pimple appear out of nowhere just when I thought my skin was clearing up, that could make me scream outrageous insults at my mother just when I thought we were getting along fine, that could make me cry almost uncontrollably just when I thought I was in total control of myself, and that could make the stress and tension simmering inside me delay my period forever just when I needed desperately to see it appear between my long skinny legs.
      I’m not sure when my preoccupation with my stomach began. Maybe it was one morning when I was taking a shower, rubbing the soap across my belly in long vertical swipes. I think it was just a week or two after I had missed my period, and I was remembering the night in the church sanctuary when there weren’t any rubbers, when Robbie pulled out of me and left his wetness on the skin of my stomach. For a while, right there in the shower, I could almost feel the sperm swimming across the flatness, racing each other to enter my belly button, to hide there and wait for a chance to get me. I abruptly stopped my vertical soap strokes, thinking that my up-and-down motion could encourage the sperm to go lower and lower and sneak into my vagina unannounced, to surreptitiously slip past my hair and into my half-closed wrinkles and folds and, once safely inside me, launch an all-out attack to impregnate whatever might be in their way. I switched the soap to my other hand and began using a horizontal motion as I continued to wash my stomach and rid it of anything that might be alive on its surface. But I still felt the sperm on my skin, swimming there in the soapy shower water, bobbing their heads up and down to gasp for air and using their tails like rudders to guide themselves downwards and inwards. To get them to go in the opposite direction, I lay on my back in the bottom of the tub with my feet propped up on the wall under the nozzle. The hot water streamed past my feet and legs, flowed over my stomach and rushed downward toward my breasts, neck and face, following the contour of my body which was sloping away from the nozzle at a twenty-five or thirty degree angle. My mouth was tightly closed. I was half afraid one of the sperm might get in my throat, find its way into my alimentary canal, and then bore through my intestinal wall and invade my eggs from that direction.
      I had learned back in ninth-grade health class that sperm cannot live outside the body for very long, certainly not for the week or two it had been since Robbie and I were so clumsy and careless. But my knowledge of sperm mortality couldn’t keep me from dreaming up all kinds of strange and unlikely tricks they might have been able to play on me. I looked in an old medical reference book my father kept on his bookshelf and learned that there could be 400,000 sperm in just one ejaculation. Robbie and I must have had sex at least twenty times during January, at least ten or twelve times since I had last had my period a week or so after New Year’s Day. I could do the arithmetic easily enough. Eight million sperm had spurted out of Robbie in just one month, and they were all aimed straight at me. Robbie and I had usually been pretty prepared. We almost always used something. But dozens of rubbers and pints of contraceptive foam would be helpless against such an onslaught. All it took was one little sperm, one with a particularly long tail that could propel itself through a weak spot in the latex, one with an extra strong chemical compound on the top of is head that could help it dissolve the toxins in the foam and render them totally impotent, one that was a mutant and had two or three tails making it able to rotate like a circular saw blade and cut its way through anything, one that was a good actor like Robbie, one that could disguise itself, change its voice, put on a wig and some falsies, and pretend it was one of the girls.
      Some nights I would lie in bed, put my hands low on my stomach and feel them moving around inside me, all eight million of them. My insides would twitch and gurgle. The noise and commotion would grow louder and louder. And I would just know they were building something: diverting streams, clearing trees, erecting scaffolds, laying foundations, welding beams, pouring concrete, installing pipes and electric circuits, tuck-pointing walls, painting and papering and sanding and scraping, turning me into a city of sperm.

© 2001 John Aber

spanish translation

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author bio

John Aber is on the faculty at the College of Mount St. Joseph, Ohio, where he has taught since 1985. For the past eight years, he has been working on a series of stories set in and around Licking County Ohio; "Massage," published in Issue 22 of TBR, is a part of the series. Six other Ohio stories have been published in small literary magazines such as Whiskey Island, Ambergris and Riverwind. Currently, he is working on a series of stories about teenage women and their children; "City of Sperm" is from this series. These are also set in Licking County. John Aber has been awarded two Individual Artist Fellowships for fiction by The Ohio Arts Council, one in 1996 and and the other in 1999. He can be reached at john_aber@mail.msj.edu


tbr 26               September - October  2001


Des Dillon - The Blue Hen
John Aber - City of Sperm
Jim Ruland - Kessler Has No Lucky Pants
Daniel Gascón - The Conference
picks from back issues:
Steve Lattimore - Seperate States
Alden Jones - Shelter


Virginia Woolf Quiz
Answers to last issue's James Baldwin Quiz

-Book Reviews Joyce Carol Oates, Yann Martel, Mark Winegardner, etc
-Regular Features Book Reviews (all issues)
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