(from: When Any Kind of Love Will Do)
Hey, Alito, listen up. I was young and pregnant, living on Carmine Street in Greenwich Village, near Bleecker. And I was scared, mister, scared like you and your buddies will never be.
A call I’d been waiting for came at noon. I picked up the phone and heard a throaty voice say, “Midnight, the old Breyers plant in Newark. Be there. Look for a blonde in a T-Bird, and bring the money.”
I needed six hundred dollars, and I needed it soon. I spent the next few hours waiting for one of my friends to call me and say, “Annie, don’t worry, the money is on its way.” I sat by the phone, realizing that if it did arrive, my life could end that Friday night, somewhere in New Jersey. I could end up in a garbage-strewn alley, barren or mutilated.
Ellie called me, mid-afternoon ... Ellie from Menlo Park, California. She had come through. “Jessie sold his motorcycle,” she told me. I’d only met Jessie a few times, and here he was, selling his ride so that I could get on with my life. There was no way I could express my gratitude, and there was no turning back now. The money was wired to Western Union on Seventh Avenue South, a few blocks from my apartment, and was in my hands by suppertime. We had spaghetti. That’s what my body felt like—a mass of quivering, slippery strands barely held together.
Jake and I borrowed a friend’s car, and at about 11:00 that evening, we drove down Varick Street, through the Holland Tunnel to Newark. We drove through dark, deserted streets. We passed a solitary, shadowy figure weaving down a side street. A threatening posse of militant young men was hanging out on a corner, not far from where oversized rats gnawed at garbage from an overturned can. Our windows were rolled up, and the doors were locked. My heart was pounding. I looked at Jake. Both of his hands were grasping the steering wheel as we finally pulled into the parking lot of the Breyers plant, a shuttered, ominous hulk of a building.
We sat in the car, waiting, at midnight. Silence surrounded us. This was the 1960s, and we were in pre-race-riot downtown Newark. The reality of where we were was as frightening as why we were there.
It wasn’t long before a woman in a platinum blonde wig pulled up in a baby-blue T-Bird. She positioned the car so that her open window was close to Jake’s, and he rolled his window down. “I’ll take the fetus out,” I heard her say, and I started to shake. Jake handed her the money, and I realized she must have said, “I’ll take the fee now.” Well, that I could deal with; that actually seemed reasonable, and then funny. I began laughing like a lunatic on the edge, that place where reason and terror meet. Jake leaned over and hugged me.
It was time. Somehow, I managed to get out of our car and into hers, realizing as I closed the door that I was also closing the door on my fate. “Wait here,” the blonde told Jake. I suddenly was as frightened for his life as I was for mine. This was a very bad place to be, and I was overwhelmed at the thought that something could happen to him, or that he would give up and drive away.
“Coupla hours,” the blonde yelled to Jake as we drove off. As I looked back, I saw his arm stretched out of the window, waving at me. I wished I loved him more.
The woman drove for a short while, finally parking behind an unfinished high-rise in Weehawken. With the exception of a large yellow crane parked in a corner, ours was the only vehicle in a large muddy lot. I was going to die soon, and no one would find me. I would be butchered. My body would be buried in pieces in swampland in Secaucus or thrown off the Palisades.
The woman, who finally introduced herself as Joanie, walked briskly ahead of me toward the building. She had a key, and she let us into the unfinished lobby. I wondered if there was water in the building yet. I forced myself to keep step with her as she led me through empty halls, our shoes echoing on partially-tiled floors.
We reached the elevator bank. “They’re working,” Joanie said. “That’s good,” I said. “Gonna be a nice place when it’s finished.”
“I’m sure,” I answered.
I moved in a haze, aware that I really might not survive. I was putting my life in the hands of a woman wearing a bad wig and turquoise capri pants and a doctor I had met one time several weeks ago in Union City. He’d been eating a liverwurst sandwich and had a blotch of mustard in the corner of his mouth.
The elevator ride was smooth. It stopped on the ninth floor. The corridor was lit with dim, uncovered, dangling light bulbs. We walked to the left, to the end of the long hallway. Joanie knocked twice, and the door was opened by a young man with acne scars. Joanie turned around and headed back toward the elevator. She told me she’d see me later.
I followed the man down a short hallway within the apartment. As I glanced into an open doorway, I noticed a young woman standing near a cot. She was slipping a pale-blue sweater over her strawberry-blonde hair. She smiled at me, a small upturning of colorless lips in a pale face, but all I cared about was that she was alive. I felt a glimmer of hope. And then I saw, past her, that the rest of the room contained another six or seven cots, most of them occupied. Young women wearing patterned robes were lying on those cots, and a man was changing a sanitary napkin on one of them. As I learned later, the man was a driver, like Joanie. I saw this in a moment as I was being led down the hall and into a small, windowless, brightly-lit room. I saw the table and stirrups, the counter with instruments and gauze, before I noticed the doctor and a large woman in white. She terrified me. Her hair was a mass of tight, angry red curls, and her lipstick was uneven on a thin-lipped mouth.
“Hi there,” the doctor said. “I remember you. Take off your clothes.”
I kept on my bra and a white half-slip with lace on the bottom, which was immediately yanked up to my waist when I climbed onto the narrow examination table. I slid my rear to the end of the table and put my feet into cold metal stirrups. The feeling of humiliation that washed over me initially muted my fear. I had come this far, this would all be over soon, and so I lay back, closed my eyes, and waited for the anesthetic to be administered. A thin, useless mask was slapped over my nose and mouth. I was told to take a few deep breaths.
Nothing ever could have prepared me for the pain that began between my thighs, ripped my insides in two, and traveled to my brain. A scream was pulled out from somewhere deep inside me, followed by a slap from the woman. “Shut up, bitch!” she hissed.
“She’s much further along than I thought,” the doctor said. “Hold her down.”
“I can do this,” I thought, just seconds before the pain intensified and the strong, hostile arms of the woman pinned my shoulders down.
“Don’t let her move,” the doctor said. I realized that my life depended on not moving. I forced myself to stay immobile through pain that continued to burn through me—pain that seared every nerve in my exposed body. I thought about all the terrible things that happen to people, the incredible torment and pain they suffer and survive. I thought of Mengele’s medical experiments on women, and root-canal pain without Novocaine. I thought about burn victims. I thought of the worst pains that a body could suffer through and survive as I felt the worst pain that my own body had ever experienced. I wished I could remember whether I had shaved my legs for this beast of a doctor and the scary woman in white.
I willed the pain to stop so that I could go to the room with other young women and lie down and sleep. A sisterhood of slumber. And finally, it was over. The doctor said it went well, and then he slapped a pad between my bleeding thighs. I looked up at his sweat-stained face and at the scowling face of the big woman in white, and I wondered how many other pregnant women she had slapped into stillness.
The man with acne scars carried me into the room with the cots. A Camel cigarette was dangling from his thin lips, and he blew smoke in my face while he laid me gently down. He covered me with a clean white sheet and an army blanket. The woman on a cot to the left of me reached out and grabbed my hand. I took it and held onto it for a moment before curling up and falling into a relieved sleep.
A few hours later, Joanie helped me walk to the car. “You’ll be okay, honey,” she told me. “Really.” She was much kinder now, and I was beginning to grow fond of her. I was sleepy during the ride back to Newark, relaxed and weak, but I felt like talking, so relieved to be alive.
“Joanie, I’m in a ladder tournament on Sunday. Do you think I’ll be able to play?”
“Whaddya mean, ladder, you gonna climb up and down?”
“It’s a tennis match,” I clarified. “It would really throw things off, upset a lot of people if I didn’t show up.”
Joanie nodded. “Yeah, I know what you mean, honey. You can’t disappoint your friends is what I say. I play Canasta with the girls Wednesday nights. We really depend on one another. Dolores brings the beer, Elaine brings the smokes, and I bring pizza.” I laid my head back on the leather headrest, so happy to be having this conversation, almost wishing Joanie and her friends would include me in their weekly card game. “And don’t worry about your boyfriend. Frankie’s got that parking lot covered.”
Whatever she was saying was just fine with me. I loved her and Frankie and the doctor. And they loved me. They took such good care of me. How carefully Joanie drove me back to the Breyers parking lot.
Jake was waiting for me in our borrowed car. He was reading The Wanderer by Fournier, in French, by flashlight. Joanie and I hugged, and the last thing she said to me was, “Honey, if you’re gonna do that ladder thing, don’t wear white.”
The next day was bad. A deep sorrow had descended, or maybe it was my hormone level. I sat at home with Jake and cried a lot. We would have had a very cool kid together. But we were really no longer a couple, and I was barely able to take care of myself, so who was I kidding? At some point later in the day, I got a call from my sister. I told her I didn’t feel like talking and hung up the phone, but she obviously sensed something was wrong, because moments later my mother called.
“Annie, honey, are you okay?”
I wasn’t at all prepared to talk to her so soon. I held the phone a moment before answering.
“I had an abortion, Mom.”
There was a long silence before my mother spoke. I sat on a kitchen stool with the phone in my hand, preparing myself for a lecture.
“Oh, sweetheart, thank goodness you’re fertile.”
My mother’s comment sounded as strange as her voice; each seemed to come at me separately, from a distance. The odd remark startled me out of my self-pity, and the concern in her voice made me realize how shocked she must be feeling.
There was another silence. “Are you all right?” she asked. “I’m alive, Mom,” I said. “I didn’t think I would be, but I am.”
* * *
I told her about last night, all of it.
“It shouldn’t still be that hard,” my mother said, her voice trembling. “It isn’t right.”
And I understood.
An image of my mother flashed before me—an image of her as a terrified young woman on a night many years ago, and I experienced an intense rush of tenderness for her. I felt again the caring of the woman who had briefly held my hand the night before as I was drifting off to sleep. And I remembered the woman who had been standing by a cot, pulling a pale-blue sweater over her strawberry-blonde hair. I understood the sadness of her smile. These women were a part of me now, and I felt safe in their embrace.