Vas Deferens, Bears & Jacob:
Why I Listen To My Children Breathe

Photo by Seniju
Vas Deferens, Bears & Jacob:
Why I Listen To My Children Breathe by Jesse Goolsby

I’m a fourteen-year-old Mormon kid who has never masturbated, and our family gets this free six-month HBO trial at our house, so I start staying up late. It’s 1992, and my buddies tell me Cinemax has the good soft-core stuff, but still, I hold out hope HBO will bless me with at least partial nudity. One night, Risky Business is on. Everyone’s asleep; still, I thumb the volume down. As Tom Cruise starts fondling Rebecca De Mornay on screen, I feel myself go hard and debate ending my self-love celibacy. I don’t know if there’s actual no-masturbation doctrine anywhere in the Bible or Book of Mormon, but there’s enough context clues in Sunday school to guess that God would be pretty upset at a young man jobbing himself a few hours before taking the sacrament. But still, I’m teenaged, and De Mornay is ungodly hot, and I think I might come even if I don’t touch myself. I wonder if there’s a concession between release and salvation somewhere in the night, and within ten seconds I think I’ve found a compromise as I grab my penis, but don’t move my hand. If something happens, I think, then it happens.

I feel myself hard and pulsing. I let the pressure build and overtake me as De Mornay straddles young Cruise, smartly sliding up and down, up and down, and I think I may suffocate, but I manage to breathe. I consider dry humping the new couch, and I hate myself and absolve myself: I didn’t seek out the I-want-to-do-this-beautiful-woman-all-night-long urge but here it is, undeniable and strong. And yet, this sensation collides with the vision of a white robed, muscular, Caucasian God, looking down, shaking his head, shaking a tiny bottle of Wite-Out, taking out the little Wite-Out brush and painting over “Jesse Goolsby” on the “Welcome to Heaven” list. And then, too quickly for me and my racing insides, the sex scene ends, and fully clothed actors talk on screen in daylight and my blood slowly settles and a dull ache ebbs forth from my testicles. I think about how I’ll be okay if I’m asked to say a prayer in front of people in ten hours. I’m still clean.

Sir Astley Cooper performed the first vasectomy in 1823 on a dog.

My childhood dog’s name was Nephi—a golden retriever named after one of the leading prophets in the Book of Mormon. According to scripture, the prophet Nephi was a Grade A faithful badass. He beheaded a drunk king, fled Jerusalem, hung in the wilderness with his deadbeat brothers until he built a ship, hit the seas, and landed in the Americas around 590 B.C., where he ruled as the patriarch of the God-fearing folks kicking it in the West.

My dog of the same name shared none of the prophet’s piety. So prolific were Nephi-the-dog’s sexual encounters that word spread in our tiny California logging town, and, just for fun, a local pair of sketchy identical twins would lure strange dogs over to the Goolsby house knowing that Nephi would take on anything: Labradors, Dalmatians, Boxers, big dogs, small dogs, and once, a massive orange cat.

When my mom suggested to my dad that we get Nephi fixed, if nothing else but to stop the sex show on our front lawn, my dad adamantly refused.

“Neutering makes them weird,” he said.

When I call my dad and tell him I’m going in for a vasectomy he says, “Oh.” It sounds like “Oooooohhh.” Just one word, that’s all I get, but the tone, the extra time he gives the one syllable, sends me back to my childhood, watching Nephi pace back and forth on our driveway, the twins lurking somewhere. Later that evening, I pick up the vasectomy pamphlet the doctor gave me, and case the “possible complications include” section for any behavior-related issues.

A week later, my dad and I talk again.

“Before you tell me about the kids,” he says, “just tell me, this thing you’re having done is voluntary, right?”

Nephi dies on a Saturday morning while I work my high-school summer job at an old-fashioned soda fountain. I’m wiping my shirt clean of a strawberry milkshake accident when my dad comes in and tells me that he’s buried the dog out on a forested hill east of town. For a few moments I can’t move, then I place my hands on the Formica counter, instantly conjuring the memory of the first time I stayed home alone for a few hours – how darkness came and frightened nine-year-old me and Nephi curled up by my side. My dad gives me a quick hug and leaves.

The following day I go to pay my respects, but I’m too late. Nephi has been dug up and largely devoured—we think—by a bear.

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Jesse Goolsby is the author of the novel I’d Walk with My Friends If I Could Find Them (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). His work has appeared in Narrative, Epoch, The Literary Review, The Greensboro Review, Redivider, and the Best American series. He is the nonfiction editor at The Southeast Review.