Some days Ryan Hill loves the world and it loves him back, and some days it doesn’t. Where to start? There is a kid in Mr. Hill’s fourth period class that everyone calls Duke, who is not getting enough guidance at home. He is two years older than the other kids in ninth—grade English, usually smells of cannabis—which he blames on his mother’s boyfriend—does not do his homework and often flashes a small wad of bills that makes Mr. Hill suspect that the 16-year-old child makes more money than he does.
It is not impossible, in fact, that Duke is working right here at school, under Mr. Hill’s nose, but for as many times as the boy has visited the principal for a shake-down and the talking-to he is obviously not getting at home, nothing has ever been found on his person. He says, “You don’t have anything on me,” and he is right.
So on the day we are talking about now, Duke is out of control. His mother’s boyfriend showed him a movie online last night that was not like the movies any of the other kids in Mr. Hill’s class have ever seen.
“This guy had a 14-inch cock,” he says. “It was a cock contest and this nurse measured it.”
“Bullshit,” says one of Duke’s classmates. “You ought to seen my dog,” adds another.
And Mr. Hill, who is trying to interest his charges in Mark Twain, has no chance. He asks Duke to be quiet, he tells Duke to be quiet, but as long as there is an audience, Duke is not going to be quiet. And in the end—as it almost always ends—Mr. Hill writes a slip and sends Duke off to talk with someone in the office.
As in the past, the child conjures up a venomous expression on the way out. Injustice, pure and simple, which is the worst kind of injustice, and, as in the past, mumbles something as he exits past Mr. Hill’s desk that Mr. Hill cannot quite understand.
On the day we are talking about now, however, Mr. Hill is hit with an overwhelming determination to have the last word.
He says, “What did you say?”
And Duke turns, speaking now to the whole classroom, and repeats the word. “Motherfucker.”
In the seconds that follow, Mr. Hill commits a cardinal sin in the teaching profession: he takes an insult to heart. You never take an insult to heart, nor do you argue the point. Power struggles in the classroom never end well, if they end at all.
But something takes over that is out of Mr. Hill’s control. A burning humiliation travels up his neck into his ears, and he follows the child out of the room and into the hallway.
The child hears the footsteps and turns, smug, sure that Mr. Hill is not allowed to squash him on school property. Duke knows his rights, as they all do these days. The teacher, however, blind with anger and embarrassment, assumes that except for himself and this 16-year-old, the hallway is empty, and before he realizes what he is doing, he is shouting at a child.
What is he shouting? “I am not a motherfucker!”
As it develops, the hallway, while technically empty, is not a place for private conversation. Yes, the walls have ears. Loose lips sink ships and a doorway or two down the hall, a class of gifted freshman are practicing monologues for drama class—Othello. Soon, of course, Mr. Hill’s own monologue is being practiced everywhere.
That very afternoon, in fact, on his way to the parking lot, the words come back to him, over and again. This is not Mr. Hill second-guessing himself by the way, or his conscience. These are real words, real students. Howling in the distance. First one, then three, then the entire Vienna Boys’ Choir. “I am not a motherfucker,” over and over.
And all Ryan Hill wants in the world is to go home and open a beer and lie down on the sofa with his wife and his dogs, the press of love and understanding against his chest.
Ryan is married to Sarah, who is exactly the kind of person you want to come home to for a sympathetic hearing after a long day on the job, after a public argument with a 16-year-old child who called you a motherfucker. Ryan is thinking all the way home of the better things he wishes he’d said instead of I’m not a motherfucker.
Now, it might not be a bad time to mention that Ryan is a diabetic. This is only to establish that he has been around needles most of his life, giving himself insulin injections several times a day ever since he was younger than Duke.
Which only matters because for the last several weeks Ryan has also been giving Sarah shots as part of the treatment at their local fertility clinic, which may be the best place in the world to get rid of money if you are in a hurry to do it. In any case, after two years of trying and twenty-thousand-odd dollars worth of appointments with the friendly folks there—consultations, blood tests, pee-pee tests, egg retrieval, fertilization—Sarah Hill is finally with child.
In order to aid this pregnancy from the start, Sarah has been taking a combination of hormones and medicines with names like Gonal-F and Menopur—if the hormones were people, Trump would never let them in the country—and, as mentioned, this stuff is all administered via injection, into the butt—the Hills are practicing not to say ass in front of the baby.
There are problems, of course, and anxiety, but nothing worth having is painless, and all in all it is a great time to be Ryan Hill. Speaking of which—pain—there is one more injection for Sarah, a steroid-hormone called progesterone. Progesterone is thick, about the consistency of olive oil, and the needle that comes wrapped in the box is labeled 18-gauge, and Ryan, who has been giving himself shots all his life, can barely look. Like shotguns, the lower the gauge the bigger the hole they leave.
The needle is so big that, from the first Progesterone injection, Ryan Hill hides it until Sarah has leaned over the bathroom counter. He tells her not to look until it’s over. This she does. He fills the syringe and delivers the dose. She makes a hissing noise and the spot drips blood.
The following morning the site is bruised blue and purple and there are lesions beneath her skin that itch all day. It goes on like this every night for weeks. The other injections she takes are less painful as she gets used to them, but the Progesterone only gets worse, and every night at nine o’clock the alarm goes off and the little family heads into the bedroom—Ryan, Sarah, even the dogs—and every night Ryan stares at the needle, huge and blunt, wondering how it can even break her skin.
And then one night he comes home from work where he and a 16-year-old have argued publicly about whether or not Ryan Hill is a motherfucker and—how to explain this?—after he’s given Sarah all her shots, Ryan decides to rearrange the kit, all the syringes and vials that have been sitting in a plastic bag. And doing this, he notices another, smaller plastic bag at the bottom, and looking more closely, he sees it is full of tiny, detached needles. These are labeled 22-gauge, much like the needles that come with the other meds.
Not much bigger than the needles Ryan Hill uses to inject insulin, which are needles that he doesn’t even feel. Now he looks more closely at the huge needle he has just stuck into his wife’s butt and notices spiraling grooves at the base, where it connects to the syringe.
What does this mean? It means the needle is detachable. It means that the big needle is only intended for drawing the syrup-like hormone/steroid into the syringe, for sticking it into a vial, not for sticking it into human beings. He tries the smaller needles and they screw perfectly onto the syringe.
And what does that mean?
It means all the pain and hissing and blood over the last weeks were for nothing. He was using the wrong needle. It means Ryan has a problem. Sarah is lying in bed, waiting for the sting to fade, for the itching to begin. He thinks fleetingly of not bringing it up. Use the little needles tomorrow—she doesn’t look anyway—and let her think that, like the other shots, it’s just getting easier.
Instead he sits down with her on the bed and Ryan Hill says, “You want to hear something funny?”
It takes her a second, her eyes go from the little needle in his hand to the big needle, to Ryan Hill himself, and a look he has never seen before appears on her face. Forgive and forget, it is not. You could say, truthfully, that the blush comes off the bride. Why quibble? She says: