A little while back, a woman—an ovulating professor from Germany—arrived in Maastricht, the Netherlands, to a neighborhood just beyond the city center, on the other side of the Maas River.
She parked her car at a distance from her destination so as not to be recognized (she knows quite a few professors in Maastricht), and was briskly moving down the sidewalk toward the apartment of Ed Houben, when she got caught behind a father walking his little boy at dusk. The father and son drifted past the square, but when they came upon Ed's apartment, the father pointed a finger in the dark, and the boy looked up to the third floor, where a star-shaped lantern was lit in a window.
“That is where the Babymaker lives,” she heard the father say.
Later, when he heard the story from the ovulating professor, the Babymaker himself was delighted, for not everyone accepts what he does, and so he spends a lot of time explaining the wherefores and what-hows of his avocation, often with a startling dose of Dutch honesty.
But this boy and his father—what a small victory for Ed: a world in which the Babymaker lives just down the block and no one bats an eye or blushes, no one utters a condemning word, knowing he's there, ever ready.
The first time Ed Houben slept with another man's wife was in Amsterdam. It was 13 years ago, Ed was 32, feeling unattractive, convinced no woman would ever consider having sex with him again. He wasn't a virgin, but the rapports sexuels that had come his way were, frankly, as rare as dogs in space. In fact, it had been ten years since his last encounter, though he claimed not to miss it, the sex that is, busy as he was with his job, volunteering for the national guard, and war re-enactments that a man of his ilk and interests can get sucked into.
However, he'd made a huge decision. Convinced that having a family might not be in the cards for him, Ed Houben (pronounced who-been) decided to become a sperm donor. He would show up twice a month at the clinic, “producing” in “the production room” to fill a cup for cash. The first time he went, they didn't even take his name. It couldn't have been more cold and impersonal.
“I was sort of expecting this gift of life to be received with sirens and fanfare,” says Ed. “I remember saying ‘Hello?’ and somebody from another room answered ‘Yes?’ ‘I have a cup here.’ ‘Oh, yes. Leave it on the table.’ ”
The more he donated, the more he desired some intimacy from the process. He began to advertise his willingness to do house calls on various websites. Produce a sample in the downstairs bathroom, deliver it upstairs—knock, knock—and retreat again, letting the clients take it from there. And on this occasion, here in Amsterdam, he anticipated it would be no different.
The woman had met him at the train station on her bike, and together they walked to her house, where they met her husband. She made some dinner, and they talked—wife, husband, Ed—until about 11 P.M. She smoked a joint and went upstairs, nervously. Ed had worked a full day in Maastricht and then took the train two and a half hours north. He'd now missed the last train back. It was possible, he thought, that he was too service-minded. The man kept chatting with him until, at midnight, Ed said, “Look, I really have to cut this short, because tomorrow I'm on the first train…” Blah, blah.
He knew how badly the couple wanted a baby, how badly he wanted to help. Sperm donation, as crazy as it sounds, was what now gave meaning to his life. As for the couple, he understood that theirs was what they call in the Netherlands “a traffic-light relationship,” one minute green and one minute red. The light was green now, but the man was sterile, having been snipped.
“I have to ask you a question,” said Ed to the man, “because maybe you notice she's nervous all the time.…”