[This story was originally published in Epiphany Winter/Spring 2009: Naked Psyches.]
A plump woman in a white nurse’s uniform stands in the doorway and reads a few names aloud. She juts out her hip, and from just above the clipboard, her eyes survey the room like she’s about to have a showdown with it. Tyler leans over and whispers in my ear, “I love you, Miggy.”
“Hmh,” I sigh, unamused, not taking my eyes off the woman with the clipboard. She pauses, then says, “Natasha, Tomeka, Alexis, Kate.” Still my name has not been called.
I look around. The pale yellow walls in the waiting room are bare except for a few crusty posters promoting safe sex. It’s 2005, but these posters seem so 1989. You can tell by the feathered bangs and the tapered pants of the couple in the ad. They’re in love and they are going to have sex, just like we did, but they are going to be safe about it. They’re sterile and live in a sterile poster world of primary colors. We live in the sweet-trash-smelling neighborhoods of New York. The man with the French-cuffed jeans—they’re stonewashed—is actually wearing suspenders. He’s smiling at his lady with eyes that say, “Girl, I am going to treat you right. We feel good, we are going to make love, and it is going to be as special as the meal we just shared at the food court. Life is all right.”
Here we are on the corner of Bleecker and Mott, a part of Manhattan familiar to an unlucky lot of tired, pregnant women. As it so happens, I am one of these women. The clock is ticking. This room of waiting is populated mostly by nubile teens, but the doors of the square cement building are open to anyone who has had her period. There are no windows to remind us of the dull winter outside, the cold wind racing through Manhattan’s cavernous alleys, the suffocating grey sky, and the brown slushy sidewalks that we’ll be trudging through to get to the subway, only to ride home with wet socks and cold feet.
Each of the women here is an Everywoman: Latina, black, white, immigrants who speak no English, kids with kids, college students, secretaries, sisters, daughters, B.F.F.s, bookworms, drama queens, babysitters. Most are dressed in a tight T-shirt with some trendy icon on it, Blondie, a panda, or a skull and crossbones; with a gold necklace, hoop earrings, jelly bracelets, Prada purse or Chanel handbag (Chinatown, $30); and low-rise, hip-hugging jeans with belly rolls drooping over the beltline like muffin tops. Love handles. There is an intolerable bitterness flowing inside of me, pinned under my drum-tight face. I never thought that I’d end up here.
Ty and I have been waiting since 8 a.m., and it’s close to noon now. I’m hungry and thirsty. Last night we had a tremendous dinner—Thai take-out. He told me to order anything I wanted, and as much as I wanted, even dessert, even two desserts since I wouldn’t be able to eat or drink anything after 7 p.m. My boyfriend is as big as a lumberjack; my legs are as slim as axe handles, but I ate twice as much as he did. Two plates of pad thai, half a pint of Chubby Hubby ice cream. I’m surprised I ate anything at all, because last night I still hadn’t made up my mind, and, as I sit here, I still haven’t.
We’re sharing a chair because this was the only vacant one, and I’m sitting on his lap, nestled in, as if he could keep me warm and safe, as if he could give me all the answers. He leans in to kiss my wet eyelids, and I kiss him back on the waterfall of a beard on his chin. Sitting on his lap feels good, the way it feels good when your first-grade teacher puts her hand on your shoulder and leans over to check your work, or the way it feels to clean the aquarium in the kitchen with your dad late on a Sunday night. Sitting on Ty’s lap makes me feel less like I’m doing this alone.
We came to this city together, not even a year ago—recent college graduates, fresh out of Maine. My friends said Ty “threw away” a degree in astrophysics from Harvard to pursue a career in jazz—keyboards—in the only place he said he could do it: New York City. I was terrified of Manhattan, but I would have gone anywhere with Tyler.
Supporting Ty at all the late-night gigs (Blue Note, Fat Cat, Tea Lounge), carrying his amps to the fourth floor of his Myrtle Avenue apartment, waiting up for him until 2 a.m.—I got tired. The subways exhausted me, too. And in between days when I had to decide if I should use my last four dollars to buy a Metrocard or food, I lost track of the rhythm of my body. I stopped protecting myself, and got swallowed up by love and the rat race. And now I knew I could never marry this guy.
I look at Tyler. I know he is hurting, but I know he wants to be here more than I do. He is sure this is the right thing to do. I am not. I am Catholic. After today, I’m not sure I will love him anymore.
Sitting behind a bulletproof Plexiglas window is the clinic’s receptionist: Is you and him together? ’Cuz he gots to sign his name right here. Behind her is her counterpart—a security guard, mid-forties, rough as a grapefruit peel. He is missing his left eye. He peers around in a bored sort of way at all the women in the room, then fixates on the old TV in the corner, which is playing “Mrs. Doubtfire.”
Soon, the space between us will be greater: I will have to go in alone and I will return with less. But for now, we are waiting together in this bland, ugly room. We are in Purgatory. Mr. Crocodile-One-Eye, aren’t you the least bit worried that someone in your waiting room might spontaneously combust? Because, sir, we are sitting on the razor’s edge of loss and fulfillment, controlling these little fates, our own, and each other’s. Shouldn’t we be joyous? Shouldn’t we be terrified? No. We are tired. We are tired. We are tired.
The woman with the clipboard appears again. I get off Tyler’s lap and approach her. She puts her hand up, motioning just a second, and calls off names like she has a bazooka for a tongue.
Then she turns to me. “Can I help you?”
“Um, excuse me, my name hasn’t been called yet.”
“And what is your name?”
“Mia—I called your name an hour ago.”
“Whatever. I called you an hour ago, Mia. You shoulda been listening. Go in with the rest of them girls.”
I walk back to Tyler, who has slid down in the orange plastic chair and seems to be on the verge of throwing up. He’s wrapped in his giant black parka, and his bright-blue eyes look just a little bit sad. I peer down at him. I don’t want to go, I think.
“I gotta go,” I say.
“I’ll be right here. The whole time.”
I follow the troop of girls through the door. This is it.
I am in the billing department. It looks like the checkout line of a grocery store, or, worse, the D.M.V. I sit on a couch across from a young white woman dressed in “business casual.” She looks out of place, Midwestern, like me. Then I hear Amanda’s voice: Don’t let Tyler tell you what to do. You’re too good for him. Just come back home and live with us. We can help you take care of the baby.
I pay with Tyler’s credit card, $315.
Take the elevator and push the button for the second floor. The elevator slides up the shaft and opens to another waiting room, this one smaller and quieter, more like a dentist’s or doctor’s office. The magazines—Elle, Working Woman, Redbook—are all outdated, and there is another small television in this room. Its reception fades in and out and it’s playing “The People’s Court.” I sit down next to a middle-aged woman with unusually long fingernails—ram’s horns with rhinestone-studded tips—flipping through Victoria’s Secret. I look at her, confused and impressed by someone who can think of lingerie at a time like this. I will never have sex again. Ever.
“It hurt!” A woman screams from down the hall. “It hurrrrt!”
I whip out my phone, send Tyler a message: “i dnt knw if i can do this. some 1 is screaming in here. tyty. im scared.”
My cell phone rings. It’s Tyler.
“What are you doing? We’re not allowed to talk.”
“I’m in the bathroom,” he whispers. “What is going on up there? Are you O.K.? Where are you?”
“This place is fucked up,” I say.
The woman with the ram’s-horn nails shoots me a terse glance. I’ve interrupted her casual paging.
I cover my phone and mouth with my hand, and lean into my chest and whisper, “I’m not sure what’s going on. And some lady is fucking screaming in some room nearby. And no one seems to care. But I think I’m getting closer to the end, and . . . ”
“Shit, hold on a sec.” I hear all this muffled rumbling and swishing and yelling. Then I hear Tyler: “My girlfriend’s in there! That’s my girlfriend in there!”
My phone goes dead. It rings again.
“They kicked me out. Do you know how long it’s going to be?”
I’m called into a lab. Inside, it’s metallic and sterile and when I see the wastebaskets with the orange biohazard stickers on them, the cotton swabs and the vials, I start to cry. I close my eyes.
I remember before I left Maine, my neighbor Pat sneered at me for wanting to leave the place that we considered paradise. He gave me his analogy for New York: “The city is like a fucking spaceship that never took off. It’s still chained to the ground, but people keep loading in and loading in and sending their garbage out on a conveyor belt. They stay in the spaceship and build systems upon systems and you forget who you are and someday you’re going to feel the spaceship start to rumble. Don’t get stupid, Mir. Keep your eyes open.”
A nurse grabs my arm and I open my eyes, and all the tears fall out. I can’t get them to stop. She wraps a rubber band around my elbow and it pinches my arm hair. A needle. My blood is drawn. Just get through this.
“You can go,” she says.
Back through the waiting room, through the double doors and down a long hallway. As I’m walking, I notice more people in lab coats, eyes forward, straight faces—more doctors, I assume, or whatever they call people who do this. I hear that woman crying again. What is going on? I reach my destination, a small examining room. Next to the examining table is a white machine with a plastic screen. A woman in a white lab uniform instructs me to take off my pants—“You can leave your shirt and jacket on if you want,” she says—and lie down on the table. Her hair is gold and swept into a bun. The tears start again.
“Vhy are you crying?” She’s curvy, with a stocky build. Her face is tan and smooth; her lipstick is fuchsia. And her perfume smells familiar, like the one my mom used to wear. Red, by Elizabeth Arden?
“Vhy are you crying?” she asks again.
“I’m checking to see if my eyes work.”
I feel my entire body pulsating, my heartbeat like coins in a washing machine.
“What are you going to do?” I ask her.
“I’m giving you an ooltrasound,” she says.
She puts her hands on my knees and splits open my legs like I’m a nuisance. I can’t look. Fuck this. Fuck him. Fuck New York. I close my eyes tight, squeeze my face into a fist, squeeze out some tears and lock in the rest. I’m not in a clinic; I’m on an assembly line. She finishes, and I put my clothes back on, my shoes back on, and walk out. I still feel the gel between my legs. It’s slippery. I leave the room and look down the long hallway. I can’t do it. I just can’t.
I’m approached by Lisa, a social worker—white, chipper, preppy—with the do-gooder, save-the-world spirit of the upwardly mobile. If we were from the same town, our parents would probably be friends. We should be friends. I am embarrassed now. I am sorry, Lisa. I am irresponsible. I am flippant. You are patient. You are disciplined.
Lisa hands me a baby-blue hospital gown and some flimsy paper slippers. “Stay right here. I’m going to find us a room.” A few minutes later, she returns, and we ride the elevator downstairs. She occasionally tosses me a smile, but I do not reciprocate. As we walk past the waiting room, I think to myself, Suckahhhs, I made it to Lisa. I got the gold star.
Lisa and I walk down a labyrinthine hallway; she’s knocking on doors, and I’m following her around like a dummy. She finds an empty break room. It’s filled with broken-down cardboard boxes and smells of burnt Folgers coffee. Here’s where I’m read my rights. But the talk is bullshit, like an infomercial.
“So what you’re telling me, Lisa, is that a woman has the right to choose?”
“That’s right, Mira! It’s just that simple! The choice to have a child is totally yours, even after you are pregnant! In just four-to-six hassle-free minutes, you can have a fetus-free body with no messy cleanup!”
“No messy cleanup? But hold on a second, Lisa, isn’t it unethical what I’m doing? As a Catholic, I can’t help but feel . . . well, guilty.”
“That’s just it, Mira, you don’t have to feel guilty, because here, a woman gets to make these choices for herself and for her fetus. You have the control and you don’t have to feel bad, because you get to choose. It’s just that simple. Blah blah blah . . . ”
At this point I don’t care what Lisa has to say to me. I am tired and my body feels funny, like when you hold a jackhammer for too long. Lisa hands me a plastic bag that reads “I ♥ New York” for my clothes, and tells me to go find a bathroom to change in.
I wander around for a spell, clutching my blue paper clothes, then finally find the bathroom and shut myself inside. I stand there, staring in the mirror, thinking about the tired-ass look on Lisa’s face. I think about running out of here and into the street, away from this crass, inhumane factory, because who wants to live with an empty spot inside them forever and ever? I think about all those women back in the waiting room, and the ones who would be here tomorrow, and the next day, and the next. I think of all the babies that won’t be born. I think about death, and my brother Jules, who died in a car accident eight years ago. Then I think about overpopulation. And rain forests. And all of a sudden, I want to go through with it. I have to, all of a sudden.
Lisa knocks on the door. “You done in there, hon?”
This is it. Now I’m ready.
I step out, cold and shy, and Lisa walks me into the final waiting room and drops me off. It’s the tiniest room of them all. In fact, it’s not even a room, but a space with movable walls boxing in young women wearing the same blue paper robes and blue paper slippers as I am. The room is stuffed with chairs facing every which way, but there is nowhere to sit. A girl gets called out of the room, and I quickly snatch her seat.
This is the room where they erase the baby. This is where they rub out that feeling that would come in the middle of the night, that feeling that tells me I can do anything in the whole world. This is the room where I lose my innocence.
It’s chilly in here. Some girls chat, others are quiet. A girl across from me opens her cell phone and dials a number. “Mr. Kendall? It’s Jessica. I wanted to let you know I can’t come in to work today. I think I got the flu. I’ll be in tomorrow.” She slouches and cups her hands over the phone and brings it to her chest.
Half an hour passes. More women in blue robes join us, but no one has left the makeshift cubicle. A gangly girl tells another woman that she has a two-year-old daughter. “Girl, I don’t care what they tell you. Having a baby ain’t beautiful! It hurt! And when I went into labor, and started pushin’ her, I pooped! I swear to God, I shit myself! I couldn’t stop!”
“You know? It was nasty! Oh my God!”
A woman sighs. “Can y’all shut the fuck up?”
Another says, “Yeah, puh-lease. Shut the fuck up.”
The gangly girl smacks her lips and crosses her arms. “They ain’t got to listen if they don’t want to hear.”
Time passes with excruciating slowness. Finally, she throws her hands up in the air. “I don’t know what the fuck they doin’ out there, but I’m tired of waitin’ in this cramped-ass room. I got shit to do!”
She shoots up from her chair and steps over our paper-slippered feet with daddy-longlegs strides. The room falls silent. Two minutes later, she returns. “They out on lunch break, y’all.”