Four months after delivering a child, his wife was ready to resume lovemaking. Amadeo, however, couldn't help recalling his son's birth. When he'd heard the scissors bisecting his wife's perineum, he'd almost blacked out.
"Nurse!" Irina had called. Even as the baby's head emerged, his wife was directing attention to her reeling husband. Childbirth, episiotomy: no big deal.
The awe of women to which he was susceptible embarrassed Amadeo Modena. There was no denying he experienced womankind as a current running under the surface of the earth. To him, each woman was an outlet which, when plugged into, conducted this elemental power. If there was anything comparable in men, it was lost on him. He knew, however, that the way they amazed men made women uneasy.
During his dating years, Amadeo had gotten used to it. "You're beautiful," he'd say.
The inevitable protest would follow. "My nose is crooked and my hair just lays there. Not only that, my thighs jiggle. See?"
Try as she might, no woman could snap him out of it. How, he wondered, could she take her soft skin for granted? And what about the power to cloud men's minds generated by her layer of subcutaneous fat? If you could package it, he thought, lonely guys would turn it into marketing history.
Watching her husband muse, Irina said, "I know that look. You're piecing together the components of your dream computer. I almost wish you were fantasizing about other women."
She had mistaken Amadeo's reservations for lack of interest in sex. Wouldn't her nerve endings, he wondered, throb with pain at just the thought of her husband inside her?
"You know my friend Reni?" Irina continued. "After her husband Garth witnessed the birth of their child, he had the nerve to tell her he could never be sexually attracted to her again. Is that what's going on here?"
"Garth is why we don't socialize as couples," Amadeo said. Then he added, "I was afraid you might still be sore."
"Soldiers return to combat before their wounds are completely healed." She smiled and twirled a strand of her bleached hair around a beet-colored fingernail. "Your precious basketball players return to action with nagging injuries."
Irina had a lingering resentment of the hours he used to spend playing basketball, and, after that had fallen by the wayside, watching it on television. To defuse her, Amadeo teased, "Which does our marriage most resemble? Combat or competition?"
"Who are you kidding?" Irina shot back. "You avoid conflict at all costs."
To keep her from going down that road, Amadeo grasped Irina's wrists as if to wrestle with her. The pregnancy poundage lingering on her usually spare frame not only aroused him, but answered his question. Mired in motherhood, tired and overweight, Irina needed an affirmation of her attractiveness.
Amadeo regretted that, while a nation honors the homecoming of triumphant soldiers with cheers and confetti, he hadn't pre-pared a celebration of her return from the childbirth campaign with scented oil and rose petals. Instead, she was met with spermicidal gel and that latex flower known as the diaphragm which, upon insertion, blossoms inside.
At age two, their son Radu fell victim to his first asthma attack. Amadeo could almost see the silent pleas the gasping boy made to his mother peeling strips from the lining of her heart. Once they found a bronchodilator suited to him and Irina instituted holistic measures, the disease became manageable.
Still, Radu's pallor cast a pall over their lives. Ever empathetic, Amadeo had no wish to make love when his wife's thoughts were with her child. However, after a couple of months, Irina's conviction good sex was emblematic of a successful marriage reasserted itself.
She tried to make light of the trip to the bathroom interrupting their lovemaking. "Excuse me while I contracept." Their disdain for the pill was mutual.
Upon her return, though, Irina faltered. Her resentment she was expected to make love when her son was ill rushed in to fill the crevice Amadeo felt crack open in their marriage.
Spared contraceptive worries, Amadeo thought, Irina could move beyond her notion of sex as just a conjugal blazon. She might even learn to value it as a respite from concern over her son's ailment. Undeterred by her perfunctory enthusiasm when he unveiled a plan to visit a urologist, he made an appointment.
The day of the procedure, Amadeo sat in the doctor's office while terms like mass sterilization and eugenics drifted through his head. As Irina had with an epidural, he refused sedation. However, the alacrity with which the doctor, after anesthetizing him, made an incision, alarmed Amadeo. When the doctor popped out his vas deferens, he thought of that painting by Rubens, Prometheus Bound, he'd first seen as a child. A Catholic youth conscript, he thought Prometheus's nakedness was dirty and, as punishment, an eagle plucked out his liver.
Afterward, when the doctor's assistant, an outgoing young man with a luxuriant mustache, found out Amadeo's wife had emigrated from the same country as him, he said, "Honeymoon in Romania." Handing Amadeo gauze pads to stuff in his underwear, he elaborated. "With no need to concern yourself with contraception, your second will be as carefree as you hoped your first would be." He then extolled Romania's beaches and divulged how cheaply the currency exchange rate allowed you to dine at a five-star restaurant.
Amadeo understood he was just trying to infuse some lei into Romania's strapped economy. But allowing a citizenry that poor to serve as the backdrop to your holiday seemed as insensitive as making love to woman who was stressed, and he was already guilty of that.
After enduring the mandated six-week wait and the indignity of the fertility test, Amadeo got the go-ahead to engage in unprotected sex for the first time since conceiving Radu.
Ten minutes in, Irina sat up. "What are you doing?" she asked.
Amadeo had thought using the operation as an excuse to forgo foreplay would be disrespectful to her.
"Get on with it," she said.
Afterward, though she refrained from voicing it, her disappointment was apparent. The urologist made no promise a vasectomy endowed you with the staying power of a porn star. It seemed, to Amadeo, like the excuse Irina was looking for to dispose of sex once and for all even though it meant surrendering her vision of a showcase marriage. How could she dismiss the sweeping deferral he'd made to her biology? Instead of asking her, however, he sought refuge in computer games.
Incensed at being ignored, Irina said, "You think you're entitled to all the sex you want because you went under the knife, don't you?"
Amadeo looked up from the computer. He was thankful she left the implication unspoken: Don't even think about comparing it to childbirth.
However, there was no avoiding what followed. "I'm entitled to something too: help with Radu."
They'd noticed their son was less likely to fall victim to an asthma attack when busy. On weekends, Amadeo would keep Radu occupied for a couple of hours. However, his pride in fatherhood would turn to shame when Irina, without fanfare, would double the time he'd invested.
Turning from Amadeo, Irina said, "Don't let me stop you from getting your needs met. It better not show up on the credit card statement though."
Whether she meant an escort service or a motel room for an affair, Amadeo considered himself incapable of either. Therefore, he had no qualms about congratulating himself for divining the understated appeal of a young woman in his workplace. With her thin lips, limp hair, and quiet irony, she was overlooked by most men. It wasn't long, however, before he was overcome with the need to demonstrate his skill at heart appreciation.
He then ran an ethics check on himself. But, like a concealed weapon slipping by airport security, the impact of an affair on his child eluded him. Instead, the attraction he once felt for Irina's brashness came to seem like an aberration he could correct by connecting with the reserved Glyn.
When, invited to her spare apartment, he presumed to proceed without protection, she balked.
"It's not that I don't believe you've had a vasectomy," Glyn said, "but don't they issue you a card or something?"
Why hadn't the doctor? Amadeo wondered. Conceding a card invited duplication, he imagined some punk flashing it to a young girl while slipping her a date rape drug. Anyway, it wasn't like Amadeo had enrolled himself as an organ donor.
No longer able to divert himself with the prospect of an affair, Amadeo toyed with the idea of divorce. However, Radu had swum back onto his radar screen. Not only couldn't Amadeo leave Radu, he couldn't abandon Irina with a sick child.
The strategy Amadeo devised to stay out of divorce court was to return to the basketball court. He joined a league with guys just out of college and, running himself ragged in their wake, noticed his sex drive was elbowed aside by his drives to the basket.
A side effect of trading testosterone for endorphins was a surfeit of good cheer. However, reluctant to flaunt his elevated mood before his beleaguered wife, Amadeo parceled some out to his son and hoarded the rest. He saw less of Irina, who spent her evenings working the phones for a support group of parents with asthmatic children.
When Amadeo rolled his ankle and was forced to the sidelines, his conditioning ebbed and his libido surged. Like his wife with their son, he wanted to know how others coped. At first he opened a forum on the Internet for other men left high and dry after a vasectomy. Inspired by a strong response, he posted a flyer in the train station announcing his own support group. Irina shook her head, but a basketball side's worth of men signed up and a psychologist volunteered to sit in.
After listening to each of them, Dr. Lloyd spoke, "To a man, you've made the same mistake. Expecting a vasectomy to pave the way to carefree sex is like a woman becoming pregnant to solve the problems in a relationship. But while the arrival of a child can screen a couple from each other, a vasectomy unmasks a relationship. You're forced to confront what it is you're doing—or not doing—that makes your wife, stripped of contraceptive excuses, continue to sidestep intimacy."
That kind of took the wind out of their sails. Afterward, Amadeo invited Dr. Lloyd out for a drink.
"Aren't therapists supposed to let you turn on your own light bulb?" Amadeo asked
"Thank you, doctor, for condensing months of tedious meetings into one," Dr. Lloyd said. A large African-American man in his late 40s, he looked like a one-time power forward who ate as if he were still muscling his way around the paint. "Since you're not my patient," he continued, "I'm free to tell you what I think."
"And you think we're wimps?"
"As for you, Mr. Modena, I had you pegged as a pedestalist from the start."
Amadeo looked at the doctor. What had he said?
"When you put a woman on a pedestal," Dr. Lloyd said, "you're fixing her in your image." He stopped and laughed. "Not like you've been fixed, of course."
Amadeo rolled his eyes.
The doctor continued. "The kid glove treatment is just a tactic you use to keep your wife pacified."
Amadeo begrudged Dr. Lloyd his point. Irina was a lot tougher than he was. However, he had a final question. "What becomes of gallantry?"
"If you're so gallant, how can lobbying for a love life offend her?"
Amadeo guessed it was time to revise his definition of manhood. As they prepared for bed, he told Irina, "I had an enlightening discussion with a therapist."
"How typical. We need couples counseling and you seek help for yourself."
After explaining how he met Dr. Lloyd, Amadeo, fumbling for words, chose the expression Irina had used. "He told me I've got to get my needs met within the marriage."
She laughed in his face. "Your needs? I've met your needs. There's Larry Lust. Harry Hoops. Herman Hard Drive."
The wounds Irina's wit inflicted were to herself, Amadeo thought.
Shelving the sarcasm, she asked, "What about our son's needs?"
"A little money put aside for child care to give you a break would help."
"And to make that money, who will be home less?"
"Look, Irina," Amadeo said, "if this is a contest to see who can give more to Radu, I'm hopelessly outclassed. What he needs is his parents intimate and a warm household."
"He's got me. He doesn't need anyone else."
Something else needed revision: Amadeo's inclination to give equal weight to all of a woman's words. He got into bed and turned from Irina.
She wasn't finished. "That's what you want, isn't it? For me and Radu to go off somewhere and leave you in peace."
"Start making sense," Amadeo said.
"Oh, now I'm crazy."
Amadeo closed his eyes.
Irina began crying. "That gives you license to disregard everything I say, doesn't it? I hope you're happy. You don't even fight with me and you win."
Amadeo opened his eyes, sat up, and said, "No, the marriage wins. You may not have been playing fair, but I wasn't even in the game. Time for me to get off the bench and come in from the sidelines."
Irina cocked her head. She was finally going to get the fight for which she had been spoiling.