In late November, we locked the door to the office. Pressed against my behind with the force of our combined weights, the wooden desk was chilling. I shut my eyes against it, the overhead light. He smelled as he always had. Once again he pressed his cheek against my shoulder: I stroked his thinning hair: the tenderness-I no longer feel it-of nostalgia, not passion.
Three or four million spermatozoa. X or Y. One six-thousandth of an inch in diameter. Hairlike tails. The tails moved rapidly from side to side, propelling. An inch per 12 minutes. The body attacked them as they advanced, greatly diminishing in number. An ovum is ripe for approximately 48 hours.
He craned his neck for the obligatory kiss at midnight. New Year’s Eve. Mortality seemed remote. That was what 1 once felt in those final ten seconds of the old year. But that year, as I stood arm around this man 1 had ceased to love, the year coming in ten seconds was an ending. A referee’s count in a boxing ring. A month before, we engaged in a sexual act on a desk in an office. And there was no future for us. He did not know this. He did not know I would remove him from my life in this new year. I never planned those things deliberately. I held them at a distance.
“We” saw the new year in together. We stood kissing in the face of the new year. The year stretched before us in thin monotony. One point stood bleakly defined. A decimal marring the smooth unbroken year. It lay on a sliding track, shuttling unsurely between January and February.
I would do as I had been taught.
It is the same this day as it was then, as it has always been. Women do as they are told. Our obedience vindicates accepted mores. In this manner we protect the existing social order. We are the defenders of the status quo, the standard bearers. It is only the standards that have changed. The structure remains: the taboo that once forbade discussion of female sexual arousal now prohibits its exclusion from consideration.
Instilled in each woman is the belief that she is intransitive, that she cannot affect change or motion in her life, any more than she can resist the social code. To take responsibility for my actions — to say “I did this thing,’’ rather than “It happened to me” — is to breach culture’s dictates. Dictates with which one does not choose to comply or disagree. They are not external and are, therefore, irrevocable. That is not to say they cannot be revolted against. But the decision to conform to or defy society’s strictures is unconscious, unchosen. That decision is itself learned behavior, assimilated from the same culture from which we seek to divorce ourselves.
This is not an attempt to absolve an individual of responsibility for her actions. I do not seek forgiveness. This is what I mean to say: It is only through acceptance of our fundamental lack of self-determination that we can truly act responsibly.
Do not think that you have been untouched.
The movements of social reform that arose and died in the past 25 years left no one untouched. Those who did not participate actively in such movements are still inculcated with their dogmas by mere association. Adaptability, after all, is the key to survival. Current values, which reflect an insidious shift toward the philosophically inorganic — the postwar drive for individual success; the ruthless pursuit of personal satisfaction; the disintegration of the family (an institution that “outlived its usefulness”); the devaluation of human life; the preoccupation with Ethics and attendant controversy over what moral base to found them upon — are passively absorbed.
I was never forced by hunger, poverty, or racism to question the world in which these values had been conceived, had germinated. I am a white, middle-class woman, the fourth generation in my family to attend college. Obedience was easy; no matter what society might require of me, my basic needs would be provided for. I was dealt a fine hand. A hand it would have been a crime to bite.
We live in an age beyond the death of absolutes. What I did is considered immoral by some. But to my class and kind, it is an inalienable right. Let me say what is important: There is a question. There is a possibility that what I did was wrong.
Countless sexual acts spread over the last ten years, some engaged in with a passion which the resulting conception of a child would have been esteemed by; the child would seem a natural extension of the act. A fitting tribute. Some were acts of boredom or rebellion. Many were untenanted by contraception. All these acts, in which I indulged on the slightest provocation, and for which I felt so little responsibility, had taken place without consequence. Having arrived, at the end of a long childhood, to realize the full extent of my responsibility in these acts — that they were acts that involved not just me but everyone — and after six months of celibacy, I regretted those acts to the full extent for which it is possible for a child of my era to repent. Repentance is an admission of sin, but the notion of sin belonged to another age.
Individualism long ago became more important than social responsibility. One ten-minute interval in a fit of loneliness on a cold night, with a man I had once cared for deeply. An irony both tedious and commonplace. I thought of this as I drove to the clinic on College Avenue, dulled and doomed.
That atmosphere peculiar to medical facilities: dehumanizing. The soul is forsaken for the sake of the body. A personal trauma diminished by an efficient stream of tests to be made, forms to be filled. A urine test; a blood test. Pissing in a cup and handing it over to be examined by a technician. Read like tea leaves. Like consulting a card reader. The entrails of a chicken. I relied on science for the guidance previous generations had sought in religion. Science dealt, not with absolutes, but at least with exactitude.