Archive for the 'abortion' Category

Breakfast

by Z.R. Davis

He would not cry today, he was going to be happy. The waitress, a moderately beautiful twenty-something, approached the table he shared with a briefcase and the morning paper. Her eyes were light blue, and her small mouth, free of lipstick, was opened slightly as if she was whispering something to herself, but had stopped midway. He wondered what she might have been saying: perhaps a song, or maybe a bit of poetry. No, not poetry; she was far too pretty to know any poetry. Only ugly women liked poetry. Maybe that was wrong. Did ugly women read poetry, or did it just seem that way? Did they just talk to themselves out of loneliness?

Pancakes today, two big fluffy ones both larger and thicker than the plate they rested on. The midpoint of the pancakes had been eaten out, and in the exposed portion was a small pool of sugar-free maple syrup. He was on a mission to lose weight this year, although he was not fat in any clinical sense of the word. His stomach was slightly engorged, and he only had three pairs of pants that fit him comfortably, but he was skinnier than many people, and in fact was considered scrawny by some. The guy his wife was currently sleeping with was rail-thin, though.

 He wasn’t sure what his wife saw in her rawboned lover, but if she was looking for a skinny guy, he could become that for her; she would love him again in six months. He would be nearly transparent. Thinking about that made him feel terrible, however, and he sat with his fork suspended in mid-bite, a line of syrup falling from the bit of speared pancake. He was already transparent to her.

Despite his inward feelings, the image he presented was that of a strong, able-bodied man who had entered into middle age with most of his hair free of gray and a look of good-natured intelligence and wisdom that shone in the corners of his eyes and in the lines of his cheeks. Today he was wearing his nice suit jacket with a long-sleeved white dress shirt underneath with no tie. He left the top button—the one that presses against the Adam’s apple whenever a man swallows—unbuttoned. Looking good was important because a man needed to project an image before he experienced what the image suggested. If he looked successful, he would be successful. Happiness was just a matter of showing the world how happy you were, and eventually the heart and mind would cease their stubbornness and become happy.

“Can I get you anything else?” the waitress asked, and when she closed her mouth, her face set in an expression of somewhat hurried benevolence, he could see small lines at the corners of her mouth that made her lips look curiously like parentheses. He was shocked he hadn’t noticed when he first ordered.

“No, thank you. I’m fine at the moment.”

The waitress walked away, and he stared at the hole he had made in his pancakes and thought of the waitress’s mouth. Those oddly shaped lips, nearly curlicued in construction, would not leave his mind. He was surprised to discover he did not want the thought of her mouth to leave his mind. He wanted to call her back and ask what the specials were so he could stare at her lips as they bounced over every word. He wanted her to read the menu to him, and when she was done, he would ask questions about the food.

Is the bacon from a local farm? Is the gravy homemade? Do the eggs come from actual chickens, or does the restaurant use that liquid egg substitute I sometimes see in the supermarket at the end of the egg cooler, the sight of which always brings a queer sadness upon me. It’s derided by children as their mothers push carts loaded with offspring and cereal, their eyes skyward so they can pretend the obscenely loud noise does not come from their children. They had no children—oh no—they were still young and had so much going for them. They never got married at 17. This goes on until one of the children grabs its mother’s arm and cries “Mommy, look! That eggy stuff is gross!” but it’s not gross, it’s just different. You can never get kids to understand that because it’s one of so many things you cannot explain to kids. Reflecting on it now, I think it was probably a good thing our baby died because I’m not sure I would have had the patience to explain things like egg substitutes to a child. It would have been nice, though, to have a little version of me, dressed for success, standing next to me and calling me daddy. I could explain other things to him, like why boys are different from girls and why mommy works and daddy stays home. That would be nice. I don’t know why she chose (because I sure didn’t) to get rid of the person growing inside of her, and it was you, my son—I don’t know why she didn’t want to keep you. She said she just wasn’t ready for a family, but it was really because she had met that skinny guy, and wherever women go to find insubstantial-looking guys like that, I’ll never know. I want to hear the waitress read the menu and watch her strange, pretty mouth move easily over the words she is so accustomed to saying every day, and maybe if I’m lucky I can tell her about my wife and how I’m going to get her back. She might even be proud of helping me get her back by bringing me the sugar-free syrup with the pancakes. She’ll say she’s glad to help and that she knows a guy who can take care of that skinny punk, no problem, and I’ll say no thanks—not necessary—because I’m lifting weights. One day soon, I’ll walk to the house from the restaurant and open the door and mount the steps and not listen to the skinny guy’s heavy breathing or my wife’s moans. I will stay focused and alert because she wants me to, and she will be impressed by my focus when I go into the bedroom. I will lift up the skinny guy as he is on top of you and carry him down the steps and out the front door and throw him down on the curb like the worthless trash he is, and I’ll go back in and wash my hands and go upstairs. You’ll be smiling brightly and will tell me you never loved anyone but me and that you’re sorry for playing around with trash. You’ll be ready for a real man, and I’ll make love to you like the skinny guy never could, and your moans will be louder because I am a man and not walking trash. You will want to have a baby—a son we’ll name Jack, just like he would have been named if we had kept him the first time—and we will grow old together in each other’s arms as Jack turns into a fine man just like his daddy.

A man walking by bumped into the diner’s arm just as he was about to take the bite that had been suspended for so long. A bit of sugar-free syrup fell from the fork and landed on the diner’s shirt. There was no “excuse me” offered, and he doubted there would be one in the future, the sort of rudeness that is even more insulting because the person doesn’t even acknowledge that he’s done something rude. If he had maybe spit on the diner’s face, it could have been forgiven—at least it would have been honest. The diner could not understand why some people felt the need to act as if kindness and basic decency were foreign concepts. Just like the scrawny man. Just like his wife. She never once thought to bring up the subject of her infidelity. She kept trying to hide it, and that was unforgivable. There are certain things you should be honest about no matter what, and anyone who wasn’t deserved what they got.

The diner felt something within himself shift, and then break. He thought how awful people were because they insisted upon their rudeness but lacked the decency to be straight about it. He was hedged in all sides by the callous and uncaring. There was no escape.

He was too hot, the room was too hot, and he needed to cool off. Feeling like he was aflame from within, he rose from the booth and started swiftly toward the door. He realized as he stood in the doorway that he had left his briefcase at the table. A family of three trying to leave stood behind him. Trying to decide whether or not what was in the briefcase was necessary to go back for, he turned around and began to bite his nails and spit them out absentmindedly, not noticing the ragged, brutally shorn ends of his nails were landing in the hair of the woman in front of him.

“Oh, excuse me,” she said, “you just spat on me.”

Realizing this was his chance to be courageous, the husband stepped forward and placed his index finger mere inches from the face of the diner—this man who had offended his wife, and by proxy, him as well.

“Nobody spits on my wife, you get me?” The husband, feeling his statement to be insufficiently tough, added, “You don’t even spit near my wife, asshole.” Getting bolder, he said, “Maybe you and I should go outside and talk about your manners. I’ve got my family here, and they don’t need to be exposed to that kind of rudeness. What makes you so special you can spit on people, huh?”

At this, the husband spit a viscid glob of saliva, yellowish from the orange juice he recently finished, onto the diner. Although he was aiming for his face, the glob, perhaps too heavy or not expelled with enough force (just in case the diner would happen to take offense) landed on the collar of the diner’s nice white dress shirt.

The husband stepped back and raised his hands to chest level in anticipation of the coming fight, but the diner walked past him to the table where he left the briefcase. The husband, considering himself to be the victor in the exchange, marshaled his family through the exit and toward their car; the only physical contact between himself and the diner was the soft brush of fabric as the diner, in his finest suit—the one he wanted to be buried in—walked past, the shoulder of his jacket touching lightly the husband’s pullover sweater.

Zach Davis is a writer living and working in West Virginia. His work has appeared in print (Sans Merci and Shepherdstown Chronicle) and online (Martinsburg Journal). He has been writing since a first grade assignment to write a three page narrative; the teacher hated the story, but his classmates loved it.

A Kind of Love

An essay by Mira Ptacin

I am in California and I have just ridden a gondola into the Ice Age.

I bought the expensive cable car ticket because I wanted to catch a glimpse of the million-year-old lake everyone has been talking about. The lift carried me up two thousand vertical feet, over grey-green conifers, over brush fields with crunchy, thirsty-looking plants and gravel cliffs with caramel-colored soil. Steadily, I got higher and higher until suddenly, and only for about five or six seconds, I got to see the lake.

Lake Tahoe was giant, and startling, and still. The huge blue mass came out of nowhere; it was as if the trees had fortuitously parted to reveal a secret brontosaurus stealing a nap. But the car kept moving up and on until we reached the nosebleed section of the mountain. The gondola stopped. I got out. And here I am.

Below me is the Squaw Valley USA ski resort. I didn’t come to Squaw Valley to ski. It’s August, and there’s no snow. The reason I am in here on the west coast, in the opposite end of the country from my home, and high up in the Sierras is because I am participating in a summer writer’s conference. Seven days ago, I left Manhattan and Andrew and Maybe for a literary retreat and I have three days left before I am to leave and resume my life at back on 32nd and Third Avenue. But for the remainder of today, I will be hiking around Squaw Valley’s High Camp. In doing this I plan on appreciating nature. And by appreciating nature, I hope to make my mind clear and stable, make sense out of things, and reach some sort of conclusion, or final decision. They gave us the whole afternoon off.

Squaw Valley’s red, white and blue-colored pamphlet tells me that Lake Tahoe is subterranean; it’s almost five hundred meters deep. Her waters are so still and unmoving that people flock from all over the planet just to bear witness to her clarity. The lake’s creation was incidental and completely natural: millions of years ago, melting snow filled the southern and lowest part of the basin. Rain and runoff added additional water. Eruptions from an extinct volcano called Mount Pluto formed a dam on the north side, and, during the Ice Age, scouring glaciers helped shape the rest of the lake.

As I skim through the glossy brochure’s scientific explanations, I can’t help but recognize the words on the page as metaphors for my current situation: formed by a series of large faults; capable of large magnitude earthquakes; located within Desolation Wilderness; the youngest Deformation Belt. I smack the pamphlet with the backside of my hand, folding it up three times before tossing it into a nearby garbage can. “Shut up,” I tell it. Just shut up.

I am in California and I am the only thing keeping this baby alive. Without me, she is powerless.

Once, I called the baby a parasite. “This thing is a fucking parasite,” I said. I was so sick. I was so angry. I had spent the entire afternoon sprawled out on the tiled bathroom floor of our apartment like a piece of road kill, stationed alongside the toilet. The moisture from its cool porcelain base had apprehended tiny pubic hairs and lavender-colored lint. The floor stunk like ten-day old urine. And the fact that the urine probably wasn’t even mine made me feel even worse, and irrelevant. Besides the point. A means to an end.

For hours my brain and stomach churned like I had just stepped off a Tilt-a-Whirl. I couldn’t get a grip. I couldn’t control my vomiting. All I could get myself to do was moan.  I was all alone in the apartment, all by myself but I could hear the sounds of thousands of lives right next to me, lives right on the edge of my periphery, not even fifteen feet away, kept separate only by a piece of drywall, or a glass window. Traces of people were everywhere— voices of strangers reverberating in the hallway, children shrieking on the playground’s monkey bars, UPS trucks, honks and sirens, food delivery to the next-door neighbor. Eventually, I fell asleep and awoke to the sound of Maybe barking as Andrew arrived home, turned his key and walked into the apartment.

When he called out for me, I pressed my shoulder blades against the bathtub and my pushed my swollen feet against the bathroom door. “Go away!” I answered. From behind the hollow door, Andrew laughed, told me I was adorable, but I refused to let him in.

“Can I come hang out with you in there, Medium Boo, please?” His words sounded muffled, like his lips were pressing upon the tiny gap where the stile met the frame.

“I just want to be alone,” I told him, and pulled my knees into to my chest as much as I could, dropped my heavy head into the space between them, and that’s right around the time when I called the baby a parasite.

“You’re so mad. Why are you always so mad?” Andrew heaved a sigh. “That baby loves you,” he said. “And I love you.”

“It’s just sucking the life right out of me,” I said, and I wasn’t sure if I was kidding or not.

I had been trying very hard to make sense of the new kind of love Andrew was talking about. It was difficult for me to understand it because I had never experienced anything quite like it. The new love completely unfamiliar, almost foreign, but at the same time it felt proverbial and natural. Also, it was fucking frightening. It was frightening because it was the kind of love that required a colossal amount of responsibility and tenderness, buoyancy and endurance, bravery and confidence—things I wasn’t sure I embodied, or would ever embody. It was frightening because from what I understood, in order for it all to be successful, I had to be strong, but I was having difficulty being strong because the new love that was growing inside of me was, at the very same time, draining every bit of love juice that I had right out of me. I had control over nothing.

I picked up my head and grimaced at the bathroom door. “The baby is making me feel like shit,” I scoured. My brown hair was pinned underneath a red bandanna, and the top button and zipper of my pants were undone. I wasn’t even wearing deodorant, not because I was careless but because I was worried that the gel’s chemicals would get into my bloodstream, and that I would pump the chemicals into the baby. I suspected that deodorant was toxic.

“I didn’t ask for this, you know,” I said. I wanted to say something that would make Andrew feel the way I did—afraid and embarrassed and irritated and sad, but there was nothing. It was a greedy notion but I couldn’t dismantle it. I knew Andrew hadn’t planned for this to happen, either. Neither one of us had asked for it, but Andrew was trying his best to make this work. He was really happy. And even though I was as unpleasant as a bee sting, it was apparent that he was still very excited about me, his new love. He was excited about the baby and the new reality of the three of us becoming one family. I couldn’t understand why I wasn’t flying through the air or singing with joy. I loved Andrew. I liked babies. So why wasn’t I feeling optimistic? Why was it so hard for me to be happy?

Eventually, I let down my guard, said Andrew could come in if he still felt like it, and Andrew stepped in, smiling unwaveringly. He sat down next to me on the tiles, reached out his hand, and told me everything was going to be okay. I remember how hesitant I was in accepting it.

Now, in California, and still, my breath and my blood and my body’s nutrients are sustaining the life inside me. Without me, this baby is helpless. Without me, she will die.

 

I am her lifeline. I am her barrier from mortality. Once this baby leaves my body, the pregnancy will end. The baby will disappear. Or as the doctors told us in the ultrasound, it will die. The medical specialists rapidly fired all of this information and more upon me, like a squad of bazookas, immediately after the ultrasound and right before I left Manhattan and flew to California. Their facts were incessant. Words I couldn’t pronounce. Holoprosencephaly. Images I cannot forget. Clubbed feet. Deformed spine. Collapsed skull. Broken heart.

“It is sick,” the doctors told us. Sick was the adjective we used to deliver the prognosis to everyone else. “It is sick and cannot survive outside the womb,” said, and that’s how we explained it to our families. But we called the baby “baby,” not an “it.”

The specialists poured on layers of genetic details, too, but it’s been impossible for me to retain any of the scientific data and medical minutiae, so Andrew to act as our secretary, our project manager. My fiancé is our ambassador. He’s taken the wheel. While I am away in California gathering my composure, Andrew is at home in the eye of the hurricane, collecting the explanations and updates then relaying his data to me, to my parents, to his parents. He is doing more for me than a man I haven’t even known for eight months should ever be expected to do. Over the phone, Andrew updates me with more validating points (amniocentesis test results are showing more neural tube defects), he tells me about more of the things he’s taken care of that I won’t have to worry about when I arrive home (the rent is paid, the apartment is clean and our roommate will go back to Long Island to spare us a few days of privacy), he shares with me more facts he’s researched on chromosomal flukes and genetic inheritances, (Coincidence. It’s nobody’s fault) and I accept all his words like a soldier, even though no matter how many sentences come out of the telephone’s receiver, I hear only one single, solitary truth to this warped, colossal calamity: that our baby just ain’t going to be. That this sweet and scary, gigantic tiny new kind of love growing inside me won’t be developing much more. That the end of the road is right up ahead of us, or so it seems.

 

 

I am standing on a plateau. The air is thin and difficult to breathe. The trees stretch to infinity and the gravel path is as grey as amnesia. I imagine the environment up here probably doesn’t change too much. Pebbles, moss, pines, sky. Timeless and homeless; I could be anywhere right now. Any country, any state. Stable. Set. Fixed. Secure.

Ahead of me, an upward-climbing path splits in two different directions—take a left and you’ll go through a parched meadow spotted with delicate violets and tiny yellow flowers, and white people walking through them, white people clad in expensive outdoor performance gear. Take a right and who knows? A fat jack pine blocks my view to the remainder of the trail. So I go right. And as I turn the bend, a pair of familiar faces emerges, arriving in long upward lunges.

“Howdy,” the gentleman says, panting. The two hikers lean on luxurious chrome walking sticks and carry Camelback water packs with clear straws that rest on their shoulders. If they are to get thirsty, all they have to do is turn their heads to the right, wrap their lips around a plastic nipple and suck.

I say “hello” back as his counterpart, a woman, begins unzipping the knees of her pants, turning them into shorts. We both watch.

 “I’ll bet your baby is going to be a forest ranger,” the man says.

Ugh. Here we go. I rub the torso of my cotton t-shirt in a circular motion, forcing my lips into a discomfited grin.

“Or a mountaineer!” the woman adds.

I recognize these two faces from the dining hall. The woman is a playwright. The man is a fiction writer. Both of them don’t know that what they’re saying couldn’t be further from the truth.

“Perhaps. We’ll see. Thanks,” I tell them.

“You go girl!” perks the writer.

Ugh. “Okay. Thanks,” I say and continue on.

The road in front of me morphs into a dried up channel coated in pebbles and pinecones that may make it tricky for me keep my balance on the way down, but I see there is a reward at the bottom of the descent: nothing. At the bottom there is a big, open, natural plaza of tall grass and glittering soil, and nothingness. Absolute nothingness. Your baby is going to be a mountaineer! Once I get down there, I can finally be alone. I’ve got to get down there.

Because there is never any escape. In Manhattan, there are nearly 1.7 million people living in a little island less of less 23 square miles, which means there are nearly 72,000 residents per square mile, which means there is never any respite. In New York City, you get no rest, no sympathy, or relief. Thousands of bodies constantly envelope you, making you feel like a minnow in a school of fish, but you’re always alone in your commiseration. In New York, you gotta keep up. If you fall, you’ll get left behind. You slow down, you’ll get run over, most likely by a yellow cab.

Here in sunny California, though, it appears to be just the opposite. Here in the yawning, open state of California, life seems to move at a much slower pace. People in California have the luxury of space and sun. In California, you can see the sky and you realize what the weather is. And in California, people ask and people listen. In California, you get asked your story and people are interested in it. This does make sense, I suppose. After all, we are at a writer’s colony.

Even though the fact that New Yorkers look right through one another frustrates me, I don’t want to tell these Californian strangers my particular story. Before I arrived to Squaw, I chose not to tell anyone at Squaw Valley the truth to what’s really going on inside of me, underneath the surface of things. Why should I volunteer that information? I can just imagine the exchange:

 

Stranger asks: How many months along?

Mira responds, candidly: Five months. But perhaps only six more days left.

 

I will not tell any of my fellow writers my predicted misfortune. This week is my time, my own personal era to be frozen in the present moment. My very own ice age. My chance to disappear from the congested rat race of New York and the unsympathetic commotion that is always muffling any subtle thought I get. Here, on this mountain, I will sit in quiet. I’m not going to think about the doctors, the parents, the others, or him, or her, or them, or you, or anyone. Yes. Here on this mountain, I will listen to my thoughts. I will sit and wait and listen for an answer to what the right thing is to do.

I manage to make it to the clearing at the bottom of the trail without falling on the loose grave. Down here, the moss is as soft and silky and green as algae. I slump down next to a scratchy rock covered in bird droppings. I am so out of breath. I am so tired, and I realize that there is no way I will make it back up the trail without keeling over and falling deep into slumber.

I roll onto my back, spread out in the snow-angel position with my legs in front of me and my arms out to my sides. I squint at the blue sky above. The sun is fierce. An ash-colored hawk swoops overhead, scouting for prey and covering the sun’s glare for a fraction of a second before it blinds me again.

I try to imagine what it would look like if the hawk swooped down and carried me off into the sky. Off the hawk would carry me, my legs dangling in midair. The hikers would look up, be flabbergasted and no one would ever believe their tale. It would be perfect, a perfect, odd picture, this escape of mine. But fat fucking chance. Not at this weight. Perhaps a more realistic reverie would be of the hawk plucking Maybe off the ground. A similar incident happened last year in Central Park: a bird-of-prey dive-bombed some Manhattanite’s Yorkshire terrier last year. My friend witnessed the spectacle, said the hawk dove down and snatched the little Yorkie right off the footpath, leash and all. Evidently the owner went bananas; I’m sure she won’t step foot in the park again. Maybe she even left the city itself. But with our dog, the hawk would really have to labor to get her off the ground. The bitch would really put up a fight. Plus, she’s chubby. The Central Park hawk would be dipping and dipping down until he finally gave up on Maybe as a meal, then he’d fly off for some smaller bites. Like a teacup dog. Tapas. Like a Yorkie. Yorkies—they’re not even real dogs. Essentially, they’re toys. Completely senseless. Senseless dogs for senseless New Yorkers, I think, then correct myself: Stop it, you cynic. Now is the time for you to detach from your anger, I think. Now is the time to think, I think, but it’s nearly impossible for me to focus. I am in California and I am anesthetized.

You need to focus! I close my eyes. You are on a mountain in sunny California. You need to focus because I believe you hold a baby’s fate in your hands.

 

A high-profile prostitute. An Olympic skier. An anorexic. She left her husband, grabbed the kids, bought a boat and sailed the world. She was abused by a priest. All my classmates are writing about their sorry lives. Everyone has had something terrible to share about something terrible that has happened to them, and all this talk of feelings makes me a bit bitter and edgy. I’m wondering, Why is everyone volunteering such deeply personal stories? Why is everyone at this conference writing about their horrible nightmares? What is the point? Writing is not for therapy, people. And how am I supposed to critique a diary entry? We are here to make art. We are here in California to turn real life into art and I refuse to write about my sorry case, because there is nothing new under the sun. Who cares about my sad story? I brought a different story with me to work on. I am going to write about other people. Immigrants. Yes. A murder. Sex. Drugs. Violence. I hear those kinds of books sell. 

Anyways, I think, withholding the information doesn’t make it a lie, or unreal. Preservation just keeps things from getting more convoluted and loud. What’s the point in sharing my story with people I don’t even know? If I told them what is supposed to happen next, what the truth is, what my story is, everything would change. And then I would be even more confused. I might even blow up.

I never knew about it when it happened. It was a little while after Jules died, after I left Battle Creek. After Jules died, I didn’t want to look back at my hometown so I never did. I never stayed in the loop, never read the Enquirer newspaper. And then last year Mom told me about what happened: Illegal Korean immigrants murdered at the Happy Spa massage parlor. Mom had been following the story for years. She was fascinated and devastated by the immigrant tale, a story similar to her own about women leaving their corrupt country for the Midwest in hopes of finding a better life. But these women were sex slaves. Their situation got bad, then worse, then worse. And then, murder! Angry, blue-collar men on drugs. The newspaper said it was an attempted robbery gone awry. It was titillating. A Truman Capote-kind of story. Thrilling. Not a diary entry, not a memoir. Sex sells, and we need the money to raise the baby. At least that’s what I thought up until the day we went to get the ultrasound. Ultrasound. . .

In the ultrasound, the doctors told me I have three choices:

  1. 1.      Terminate the pregnancy next week.
  2. 2.      Do nothing at all.
  3. 3.      Induce and deliver next week.

I am aware that once I arrive home from California, Andrew, my parents, and the doctors will expect me to have picked one of the three numbers and made a decision. I have promised myself that today, before I come down from this mountain, I will have brought down the gavel. Focus.

The deliberation in my head starts back up: A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. Once the baby leaves my body, she will be gone forever. So how long do I want to keep her inside of me? Who has the right to her life? And what is respectful to mine? She will die either way, so does this mean I have more of a right to choose when she will die? We all die. No of us make it out of here alive. We will all die eventually, so what justifies my decision to choose when this baby will die? I am her life support system. Is it similar to pulling the plug on a comatose patient who will never wake up? What if she dies inside of me before I go home?

I clutch my abdomen. For over five months, the baby and I have spent every second together, but I still haven’t really felt her. There have been many times where I’ve held perfectly still at night, anticipating some kick or flutter, but she’s never once kicked or fluttered. I’ve waited for her to give me a sign, for her to make this all seem real and recognizable, but I never felt what I thought I should: a spark, another presence. There is my large belly, there is my nausea, but I don’t feel her. I feel completely alone. Is it because I don’t realize her? Or is it because she’s not really there? I’ve felt a million different things, but I can’t tell which one is her.

I thought the ultrasound would make the baby feel real, feel alive and with me. I thought that once I saw the baby on the screen, the magic would come pouring in. I would feel like the mother, not the child. The guilt of the premarital pregnancy of a Catholic-raised girl would evaporate. I thought that once I saw the baby, not an invisible ball of emotions but an actual baby, I would feel relief and love would take over, and I wouldn’t care anymore about what anyone else thought, or said or did. But the ultrasound did not do what I had anticipated, and the baby continues to remain a phantom. A figment of my imagination. And I have a feeling I’ll never reach what I’ve been told is the exuberant stage of the pregnancy. First there was shock. Then anticipation. Then confusion. Then shame. Then uncertainty. Then enthusiasm. Then fear. Then anticipation. Then chaos. Now disorder. Now anger. Now Goddamn zal.

Ever since the ultrasound, the doctors have been explaining everything like there isn’t really a baby inside me, like there never was. Once Andrew and I left the ultrasound, everything got all  . . . procedural. Technical and cold, like metal. Like the thing inside me is nothing more than a conked out bundle tissue and blood and flesh. Flawed. So, what?

Are they right? The baby has no brain. It cannot breathe, they said. She cannot think. It cannot feel. These are the things I know because these things because the doctors told me, the facts the doctors in New York seared into the great open dome of my heart. She is alive and she is not alive. She is not quite a stillborn, but there is a strong possibility she may die in my womb. Any day. It could happen any day. And if she doesn’t die inside of me today, or tomorrow, or in ten or twelve days, and if I wait and I do deliver, she will die immediately after. Or during.

My pocket vibrates. I open my eyes, puzzled and squinting, reach down for my phone and read the caller identification. It’s Andrew.

He asks me how I am holding up, tells me he’s okay, the dog is doing okay. He asks me how classes are, am I sleeping all right, eating okay, making friends; I lie and say that all is well.

 “That’s good,” he says. “What else?”

 “My new friends are telling me I look great for a pregnant lady,” I tell him.

“That’s nice,” Andrew says. “Anything else?”

“They asked me if it’s a boy or a girl. I told them hows we’ve named her Lilly.” I try to keep the dialogue moving quickly but our exchange becomes choppy and the space between us grows larger. The conversation hesitates, then halts, then Andrew brings up what I’ve been circumventing.

“Boo, did you decide?”

 “Decide on what?” Denial is not a river in Egypt.

“Mira, come on. Your decision. About the pregnancy?” he asks and abrasively, I say nothing back. “Look, I just got off the phone with your dad,” he says.

My parents have been suggesting I choose door #3: Induce and deliver. When I called her right after the ultrasound, Mom said that if choose to let the doctors induce the delivery, I could be conscious, I could push out my baby, I could have the chance to see the baby, to hold it and say goodbye. Mom said this might give me closure, and that closure is a very important element in the process of healing. But when I thought about option # 3, I pictured myself draped in baby blue paper gown, feet propped, slippers, hairnet, pushing, sweating, bleeding, delivering a lifeless, barely recognizable red hot creature, or grey blue mass of tissue and it terrified me. No one mentioned what I would be giving birth to. Would she be alive? Would she make sounds? Coos? Cry? Will she move? Will she be alive? Would she be dead? And then after I give birth, what will they do with her? How long would I hold her? Do I want to? I am afraid of what I might see. I am afraid of what I will feel. I am afraid of being haunted. I cringe and start to feel sick. I gag.

“Mira?” Andrew asks. “What’s going on over there?”

“Nothing,” I tell him.

“I talked to your parents and Dr. Stein,” he says.

My parents. What my parents or the doctors didn’t understand was that option #3 sounded like the worse choice in the world. What Mom or the doctors didn’t mention was what I would exactly be delivering, or what I would see. Or whether or not at five months a delivery would be painful. Or how much I might rip or tear. Option #3 horrified me. If I delivered, would I still adhere to my mantra of “natural” and drug-free childbirth? Would it be safe for me? What about me?

The word “violent” had been fluttering in and out of the conversations between Andrew, my parents and me for the last three days since the options were presented. Dad told us that from what he understood, if I terminate the pregnancy, the procedure is a “violent” one. A late-term abortion means a violent surgery. (What did this mean, “violent”?) While it sounded the least natural, it was what I was leaning towards, but with such a word being used to describe the preference of my pregnancy’s fate, I started to look at myself as a savage. I thought my parents would also start looking at me as a selfish brute and this made me defensive. Their opinion mattered too much.

“But the baby is not going to live, Andrew!” I cry into the phone. I’m feeling guilty again and start to unravel. “Doesn’t anyone realize that the baby isn’t going to live? It’s all over.”

“Let’s just talk, Boo,” he says.

 “I want to do the best thing, I really do, but I can’t see what is right or wrong. I don’t know the difference between moral or immoral right now.”

“There, there,” Andrew says. “Who does?”

“Men! Men in government. Men in business suits. It’s the freaking men. What do men know about babies and vaginas? Men can not give birth!”

“I know men can’t give birth, Medium Boo.”

“God does not have white skin and a white beard! God is not Caucasian!”

“I know God isn’t Caucasian, Boo.”

“And if I’m the only thing keeping the baby alive, then I’m the life support system. And it’s not illegal to pull the plug on a comatose patient, is it? Is this a sin?”

“Shhhh,” Andrew says. “It’s okay. You’re okay. It’s okay.”

Frustrated and afraid, I start to cry again, and the noise of my crying sounds ugly to me and makes me cry harder.

“Shhh, shhh, Boo, calm down,” Andrew says. “Look–”

I’m sobbing, taking long heaves of breath between my words. “Everyone must think I don’t care about the baby. They think since I’m not excited that I don’t care,” I say. “You think I want to kill a baby, don’t you?” My mind is spinning like a car on ice.

“Stop.”

“Jesus! This is my entire fault. I don’t want to hurt the baby! I didn’t want this to happen. This is all my fault!”

“Mira, STOP!” Andrew shouts, and shatters my desolation. “I just got off the phone with your dad,” he says, “Your parents changed their minds. They think you should terminate.”

“What?”

“Your mom and dad want you to have the procedure. The surgery,” he says. “Dr. Stein explained the whole case to him and your dad thinks it’s the best and healthiest option for you,” he says.

I manage to steady my breath. “What?”

“He said it’s not what he thought it was, or something like that. And he said there is seaweed involved or something but look—we are on your side, okay?” Andrew says. “Just don’t worry about anything. You didn’t do anything wrong. You’re all right, okay? You’re all right.”

“How?” I ask.

For a few minutes, Andrew tries to explain the details of the decision I had already made but couldn’t admit. He tells me it has a name: DNC – dilatation and curettage. “It ain’t pretty,” he says, “and it involves seaweed apparently.” He reminds me that nothing about what has already happened is going to be easy, and that there’s nothing wrong with taking care of myself. That after this is all over, everything is going to be okay. “What you are going through will make you stronger,” he says, which reminds me of a Polish proverb my mother gave me once before. Nie ma tego z?ego co by na dobre nie wyszlo. Bad things usually turn out to be good for you. I always believed those words to be a load of hogwash up until this year, up until this particular moment when Andrew convinced me to open myself up to a new interpretation and forgiveness of myself.

I lean back into a bed of twigs. There is nothing left in my mind. Beneath my eyelids, I see blue-black, and I can’t think of a single thing. I will sit in this nothingness for as long as I can, and when the sun sets, I will make my way back to camp.

Under my eyes, I feel airy and weightless. I drift, doze. I fall into a trance and suddenly, a blast of air and the firm pressure of plumes presses onto my face and my chest. The sense of a presence or the feeling that someone is watching me flashes me back into lucidity, and when I shoot up to see who is there, I’m still alone. There is nothing, other than the setting sun and a navy sky.

By the time I return to base camp after having just barely caught the last gondola down the slope, the dining hall is empty at the writer’s colony is cleared out. Only a handful of summer kitchen staff members remain, mopping the cafeteria floors and stacking chairs and making it apparent that while I had been off on the mountain, the rest of the world had been going on just as well without me.

 

Mira Ptacin  is a Brooklyn-based creative nonfiction and children’s book writer, as well as the founder and host of Freerangea successful nonfiction reading series located in the heart of New York City that brings together up-and-coming and established writers on one small stage to share their work with the rest of the world. She has her MFA from Sarah Lawrence College, where she was editor-at-large of their literary magazine, LUMINA. Mira’s writing has appeared in numerous print and online publications, such as The Morning News, Anderbo, Cerise Press, LUMINA, Epiphany, SMITH Magazine, Nerve.com, the Citron Review, CommonDreams.org, Truthout.org and more. She’s a contributing writer to the forthcoming book, The Moment (2011 Harper Perennial) and she recently ghostwrote a children’s book, which will be published in 2011. This year, she was nominated for the 2011 Best American Essays as well as the 2011 Pushcart Prize. She’s currently at work on a memoir, from which this piece was excerpted.

Read our interview with Mira Ptacin conducted by Jessica Powers: Fear, Love, Pregnancy, Loss and Memoir: Mira Ptacin on writing “A Kind of Love.”

Requiem

 An essay by Cameron Witbeck

Every month, I pray for blood.

            Every month I pray to God that my girlfriend is not pregnant. And every month she bleeds.

            I pray because I am afraid. I am afraid because I do not know. I can’t see the future.

            When I was a kid, I wished that I could smell rain in the air like the Indians in old Westerns. I imagined that the rain smelled like wind flowing over fallen trees, like rust and dirt.

            I still wish I could do that, smell the rain in the air before it falls, before grey clouds cover the sun. I still wish I could always know before. I wish I could know how many days that I have left before I die. I want to know the volume of blood that I will lose. I want to see every moment of pain and loss in the world before it happens. I want to know so I can prepare, so I can defend myself and those I love.

            But I can’t. I can’t know these things because I am not a diviner. I have no magic. All I have is the past.

 

 

            I was fifteen. I was a freshman and I was sitting behind the high school before the Friday night football game.

            Up above me, the sky was a tumultuous gray with ripples and shards of dark blue cut deep into the clouds like scars. The wind pushed orange and red leaves across the green hill where I was sitting. Behind me, I could hear the crowd gathered at the game. The small pieces of individual voices were lost, ground up, and smeared together in one inseparable roar competing against the howling wind.

I looked out across the endless forest that bordered my school to the north, and across the fields that surrounded the rest. Nothing seemed alive. It was as if the earth was waiting for sleep, for the cold, white funeral shroud of winter.

            I stood up, brushing my hands down the back of my jeans to clean off the dirt and grass. I walked the fence lining the football field. I used the space in the fence that all of the students used to get out of paying admission.

            Sara was waiting for me in the stands. She was dressed all in white. I loved her. She read Hemingway and Faulkner. Her eyes were grey, and never fully open. Her light pink lips turned slightly downward. She was small and frail. When she moved, she walked with fear, as though she felt that at any moment a building would fall, a dog would bark, a gun would fire.

            When she saw me, she waved and made room for me to sit down.

             “Where were you?” she asked.

            “Just out,” I said, “Thinking.”

            “Do you want the rest of my coffee?” she asked, holding out the white, Styrofoam cup. The rim of the cup was smeared with the faint pink of her lipstick.

            “No,” I said, smiling at her.

            I wanted to tell her that I loved her. I wanted to hold her in my arms and feel her shoulders beneath her clothing. I wanted her dark hair mixed in with mine. I wanted the small bones of her fingers between my own.

            I didn’t do anything. She didn’t want me to. I had told her that I loved her, and she had told me that I didn’t. She had told me that I couldn’t love her. She said that we were friends, that we could never be more than that.

            I was fifteen. I didn’t know any better. I loved with the passion, rage, and confusion of someone who was beginning to learn what love was, and how much it could hurt.

            I sat beside her on the cold metal of the bleachers. She offered me her blanket. We sat beneath the white fleece as we watched the football game distractedly.

            She was silent. I could tell something was wrong. I spent minutes that seemed to turn into hours, days, rotations of the earth, trying to force myself to ask what was wrong.

            “James broke up with me this morning,” she said.

            “I heard that,” I said. We were not looking at each other. We watched as the red and white shapes of football players blurred and collided with each other against the green grass of the field.

            “Why?” I asked.

            We were enveloped in the pulse of a hundred conversations droning all around us. And yet, I felt as if I had never been so alone. Sara seemed like she was a thousand miles away.

            “Because I’m pregnant,” she said.

            “You’re pregnant?”

            “I’m going to take care of it,” her voice was like metal. Her words were like gears grinding into motion, moving on, and never stopping.

            “Take care of it?”

            “My mom made me an appointment for tomorrow morning,” she said. “I’m scared.”

She didn’t sound afraid. She didn’t sound like anything. She looked at me and the glare of the flood-lights above the football field was caught in the tears rimming her eyes, like two slivers of light embedded in her skin.

            “You’ll be okay,” I said.

            “Can you go with me? My mom is coming, but I need someone,” she said.

            “Sara… I can’t… I’m sorry.”

            “Why?” she asked.

            I said nothing. I thought about the white room I’d have to wait in. I thought about her absence from the room. The silence. The other people waiting. I thought about the waiting. The endless waiting until she returned to the room. I tried to imagine what she would look like. I couldn’t.

            I thought of James. He had hurt her and I wanted to scar his face. I wanted to break his bones. I wanted to make him bleed.

            “It’s okay,” she said, leaning against me in the cold air. It was dark by then, and the black, starless sky seemed infinite and terrifying.

            “Can I call you tomorrow?” she asked. “After.”

            “Yes,” I said, “Yes. Please call me.”

            We spent the rest of the game in silence, and in spite of everything, the lines of her body felt perfect against mine.

            As we left, rain fell out of the black sky. I held her once again before she left. And when she was gone, I could feel the rain washing her away from me.

            When I got home, I took out the bottle of Southern Comfort that my best friend had given me over the summer. I opened my window and lit incense. I took out a pack of cigarillos I had stolen from Walgreens. I turned off all the lights and sat in the dark with the burning ember of my cigarillo floating in the blackness. The bitter yet rosy liquor made me feel warm.  

            I went to my bed, covered my eyes with my hands, and prayed.

            Hail Mary, full of grace, the lord is with thee; blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death, Amen.

            I prayed until I fell asleep.

            Sara called the next day at one in the afternoon.

            “Hey…” she said. Her voice was soft and weak. It sounded like she wasn’t there, as if she was speaking across the room at a phone hanging on the wall.

            “You okay?” I said.

            “No. The doctor said,” she began. “He said that I might never be able to have children.”

            She was silent before continuing in the cold, metallic voice I had heard at the game. She talked about complications, about the possibility of scar tissue. She was so small. The doctor had said that nothing was certain.

            “It’ll be okay,” I said, “I love you.”

            “Don’t Cameron. Just. Please. Don’t.”

            “I’m sorry. It’ll be okay. Okay?” I said, but she said nothing. “Sara? It’ll be okay. It’ll be okay.”

            I was fifteen. I didn’t know any better.

 

 

            Sara and I fell apart. We stopped calling, or even talking to each other. We reminded each other of what had happened. She moved away sophomore year, and I left the year after that.

            The last time I saw her was a few years ago. She was walking with some guy at a grocery store. I hid behind another aisle. I didn’t know what to say to her. What could I have said?

            I heard she married that guy.

            For years, I would lay awake in bed and think about Sara and the child she never had. I tried to imagine what it would have looked like. I imagined that he would have been a boy. He wasn’t mine, but I imagined that he had my blond hair, my blue eyes, and Sara’s small bones and down-turned lips. I gave him so many names that I have forgotten them all.

            When I met my girlfriend three years ago, I began to imagine introducing them to each other in a park as we laughed and smiled beneath trees. I imagined him sleeping between her and I, as the sun burned behind the shades of a bedroom in some distant city.          

But these are just fantasies.

            I am 23 now. He would have been 8 years old this spring.

            But he never was. I failed to fight for him. I failed to ask Sara to reconsider. He stains me like the small drops of blood on white sheets that I pray for every month.

            I pray for blood because I am afraid that I will fail again. I have no magic. The rain still surprises me.  When it falls, I wonder how I can protect someone I love from the world. How can I protect them from deep water and wild dogs, from hunger and pain and death and loss?

            I pray because I don’t know how; because I will never know how.

            All I know is that someday, I will have to try. Someday, I will stop praying. And no matter what comes, I will have to try.

Cameron Witbeck is a 23 year old writer from Michigan. He works as an associate poetry editor for Passages North literary magazine and studies in the MFA program at Northern Michigan University. His work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in Cream City Review, Camroc Review, Strongverse and others.

Poems from “Snow on A Crocus,” Swan Scythe Press, by Joan Swift

Poems by Joan Swift

The following four poems appeared in the newly released poetry collection
Snow on a Crocus: Formalities of a Neonaticide by Joan Swift. Published by
Swan Scythe Press, Snow on a Crocus was given the 2010 Walter Pavlich
Memorial Poetry Award.

What Comes Back

There is no face, no hair, no skin smell,
searing blue or liquid brown eyes telling me
here’s the one I killed.
I float in gauze as day begins its shape
around the bed. There is no blood,
no thud of a falling body,
yet I wake up sure I’ve killed someone.
My victim waits outside the shower
while water tries to rinse the ghost away.
Did I kill my father? He vanished when I was six.

Or was it the man who raped me years ago?
He got off with an easy plea, five years in Vacaville,
then he raped again and killed. Her name was Joan.
Her jacket was the color of a lime and his semen ran
a silver river over it. When I took the stand
I told the jury how I painted a windowsill that day
he lunged in through the door, how he grabbed my throat
and threw me down. The jury gave him life.
Is he the one I killed?

March, gray Sunday morning. My cousin phones:
her granddaughter…baby girl born in a dorm room…
wrapping of the child in plastic…dumpster
behind that empty place of love and tears and terror.
I sink into the texture of the chair. I mourn.
Is there a killer waiting in all of us?

The Start of the Story and Some of the End

You walk through waterfalls all afternoon
and rainbows made of the drenched sun.There is enchantment
where you step through yarrow, aster, mint,

a spell falls over you and love
is nothing else but lying down, a dove

on each of your bare toes and on his back
a tee shirt you keep pulling on like

a bell for all the ringing. Later
snow will fall on your mother’s hair

as she walks from her car to the courtroom.
Killing is always the same.

The child will circle your days long after she’s gone
like a boat that swings on an anchor chain

and never heads out to sea
day after trembling day.

Christmas Night

God is in his house among the stars
so to God you cannot speak,
and your mother is cleaning up the leftovers.

Finding grace in the boughs of the dark
fir tree will not happen. You must go up step by step
to your bedroom, gather your blankets and a book.

Ponder the small life inside you with her occasional hiccup.
Whether to cross into the country of the blessed
and keep herrattles, bellsor, lacking a map

of the dun plains, wander alone with the lost.
There is still time before the first bud breaks from its caul
to save you both, to choose what is most

honest and simple. Downstairs the dishes rattle
in the dishwasher. Under your ribs the child’s dance
is a samba. And now your mother comes and you can tell

her, you can help yourself to this glittering chance
wheeling just out of reach. When she asks you
Honey, are you pregnant? the irretrievable nonce

hangs in the air like a single flake of snow
you could catch on your tongue.
And you say No.

Blowing Out the Candles

Snow falls like feathers outside the dorm window.
Breast feathers of towhees, feathers of snow

geese and trumpeter swans that fly for a winter’s
warm weather cruise

over a pond in North Carolina.
White feathers and off-white feathers, a

fluttering before your eyes
taking you to a world without any purples, blues.

You wanted to keep the baby. He didn’t.
He wanted to keep the baby. You didn’t.

Your pink warm-ups hide you as you drink lemon
tea in the big chair beside the television.

When your mother drives over with a yellow-
frosted birthday cake, you pull the throw

closer to the hill of your secret.
Too long you pretended the pool inside was a late

period. You floated on that water as if the baby
might swim away.

He wanted to keep the baby. You didn’t.
You wanted to keep the baby. He didn’t.

There on your arm is yesterday’s
beginning bruise.

You bumped the door, you tell your mother.
Then you blow out the candles of your future.

Reprinted from Snow On A Crocus, Formalities of a Neonaticide. Swan Scythe Press. Copyright Joan Swift 2010.

Joan Swift’s four full-length collections of poetry include The Dark Path of Our Names (Dragon Gate Inc.) and The Tiger Iris (BOA Editions Ltd.), both winners of the Washington State Book Award.  Her previous chapbook is Intricate Moves: Poems About Rape (Chicory Blue Press). Her poems have appeared in dozens of periodicals, including The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The Yale Review, DoubleTake, The Iowa Review, The American Poetry Review, and Ploughshares as well as numerous anthologies.  She is a graduate of Duke University with a B.A. in English and of the University of Washington where she studied in Theodore Roethke’s last class, earning an M.A. in English-Creative Writing.  A recipient of three National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowships, she has also been awarded writing grants from the Ingram Merrill Foundation and the Washington State Arts Commission, a Pushcart Prize, and been featured on Poetry Daily.

You can order Snow on a Crocus: formalities of a neonaticide here.

Please check out Poetry Editor Tania Pryputniewicz’s interview with Joan Swift.

A Book of Life in Ten Parts

A poem by Alana I. Capria 

1
There was no blue mark and then there was one. I thought in order: douche,
hanger, poison, stairs. Get it out. I pushed a fingertip against my navel
to feel for the fetus. This solid mass was already absorbed into my skin.
It would take a fillet knife to separate the silver skin from my own. When
I bled brown blood in a hotel room while on vacation, I thought
miscarriage. I cried into the dirty shower curtains and tried to hold onto
my uterus.
2
I suffered nightly. My child had a demon’s body and no face. I watched it
bend backwards and give birth to plastic dolls that squeaked mama while
falling into cracks between old floorboards. The child grew a rabbit’s
face and kicked the back of my seat in the car while laughing. Aren’t you
happy we have her, I kept asking the driver but he choked through his
laryngitis. The baby grew scars and porcelain cheeks. It kept running
towards the sugar bowl I kept at one end of the closet. Stay away. I have
to leave you, I kept saying until dawn.
3
During the day, I kept hearing children’s voices. They came from closet
doors and the basement stairs. I stayed in one room, my hair in my face,
and my hands pressed against my mouth. I screamed at the stroke of every
hour. Something followed me when I turned my back. I heard the child say,
you were the best mother you could be.
4
The woman on television walked through a tunnel of aborted fetuses. They
were monstrous, red and yellow tones set against the throbbing pink that
should have been the female vaginal canal. When she came out and held the
child after walking through a cliff-side of hungry corpses, the girl
asked, Why did you let me go? In my ear, a disembodied voice asked the
same question. I would have hurt you, I whispered back .
5
I gave a metropolitan church my baby’s name so that someone else could
remember her. In return, they emailed me a word processed certificate of
inclusion in their Book of Life. Later, they sent me emails urging
attendance at various pro-life rallies. Then my grandmother’s church began
a group that begged divine intervention for every woman contemplating
abortion. Will they take care of the babies the mothers were forced into
having, I asked while ripping pages out of hymnals around the church. I
counted matches and considered burning crosses on their judging altars.
6
My grandmother said that children come into the world with a loaf of bread
under their arms. It was a Cuban saying. She wanted to have a reason to
add the great prefix to her title. She and my mother stared at the
ultrasound picture with me. It is still so small, my mother said. I did
not tell them I had already scheduled an appointment with the closest
clinic. They envisioned carrying around a curly-headed baby while I looked
into the mirror and saw my arms burdened with dirty diapers instead of
pens. My child’s bread was already stale.
7
The fiancé saw the baby first while I lay on the OBGYN’s table with a
paper gown spread over my breasts. The ultrasound screen flashed with
heartbeat. I poked my finger at it. The doctor kept smiling and I felt
badly telling her I was not planning on keeping it. She gave me the glossy
picture and I imagined sitting on the basement steps and drinking cups of
bleach. I’m crazy, I would have told the doctors in the hospital. I can’t
have a baby when I want to kill myself. I can’t go through with this if
it’s already met the poison.
8
Then I heard the heartbeat. I was alone. The doctor put the stethoscope to
my ears and I heard the frantic drumming from my uterus. I felt relieved.
I was afraid of carrying around a cadaver unknowingly. I simply wanted to
fall asleep full and wake up empty. When the brown blood came weeks later
after I finally said I was having the abortion, another doctor would not
let me hear for the heartbeat again. I could not beg while naked and cold.
9
My child knew the scars on my legs and wrists, the macabre thoughts
preoccupying my time, and the suddenness of a manic temper plaguing
daylight hours. Her loss would have been easier if the fiancé had been
there. He could not be and so I gave her a new life. In words, I devoted
myself to her without fear of hungry and soiled sobs. I read pregnancy
pamphlets and magazines to know what she was like. I would not have liked
her larger. I would not have cared once her nine-month self passed out of
me.
10
I accepted an IV while tearing and fell asleep. I worried about the pain,
not the loss. I had never had anything stick my veins. My dreams were
pink. I tasted anesthesia in the back of my throat. I woke and thought of
water. I wrote a series of poems and hand-sewed the binding. The needle
pricked my fingers several times. My fiancé took me to the Hudson River
at midnight. We stared at the skyline until the book dropped from my hand.
The tide flipped through the pages. I imagined our daughter reading my
confessions and nodding her forgiveness. I would have hurt you, I told her
again and she believed me.

Alana I. Capria (born 1985) has an MFA in Creative Writing at Fairleigh Dickinson University. She resides in Northern New Jersey with her fiancé and rabbits. Her chapbooks and links to other publications can be found at http://alanaicapria.com.

Please check out poetry editor Tania Pryputniewicz’s interview with Alana, “Abbreviated Motherhood, Abortion as Form of Love, and Revision as Medicine with Alana I. Capria,” on She Writes.

Concessions

Fiction by Lara McLaughlin

How can I describe my marriage to Dag after twelve years? Neither of us felt completed. I had my photography, but only as a hobby then. Dag had his classes, but his writing had progressed poorly. When we got together with other professors and their wives, the evenings generated an air of desperation. We were no longer wild co-eds. We were the establishment, tethered by contracts, by research and publishing obligations, and for most, by family responsibilities. Never did it seem so depressing as when we gathered en masse in each other’s homes. Always there was the ubiquitous discussion of tenure.         

One of these evenings I was in our kitchen, washing plates and glasses with Gina Sugarland, Howard’s wife. Howard was in Philosophy, and lay passed-out across the foot of our bed. Through the envelope-sized window over the sink I could see two other friends of Dag’s in a shouting match over which was more spiritual, the music of John Lennon or John Coltrane. One of them took a swing at the other.

“Holy Jesus,” said Gina, and without breaking her rhythm passed a glass to me for drying. “They’re like little boys.”

“I don’t know. The only little boy I’ve ever known is Dag,” I said, meaning that he was the only male I’d ever known well but as I said it, the comparison did not seem ludicrous. We looked at each other, then broke into laughter.

Gina wiped a tear from the corner of her eye and laid her hand on my stomach. I flinched. “When are you going to tell us?” she whispered.

I didn’t know how to respond.  I had half believed I was only imagining the changes.

“Oh come on.” Her eyes grew big.

“I’m not sure yet.” The hope I’d been afraid of woke inside me. 

“But it’s so obvious!” she said.

I tried to flatten the swell below my waistline.

“Not because you’re showing-of course you’re not. Look at you. Plus it’s the first and all-“ Gina had three children. “But… well let’s put it this way. You’re either pregnant, or having an affair. Nobody looks like you do for no good reason!” She laughed. “You haven’t been to the doctor?”

I shook my head. I didn’t even have a doctor. Not since I had stopped taking the pill, and that was two universities ago.  Years ago I’d played Russian roulette with the pill for excitement. We all did back then. It was a little trick on the husbands. I made one month of pills last for four, then for six, then for eight.  My friends got pregnant.  I took up photography.

The conversation with Gina gave me courage to believe that sometimes strange things, miraculous things, happen. The following week I dropped in at the campus clinic. The young woman at the front desk did not look old enough to drive. I was reminded once again how surrounded by youth Dag was.  Compared to the girls floating through the halls of these buildings, I felt dried up, petrified. I was thirty-three.

“I was wondering if I could speak with a doctor,” I said, hating the timidity in my voice. The young woman looked at me as if I were a puzzling specimen that had been handed to her.

“Are you a professor?”

I shook my head.

“Student?”

“NoI…”

“An employee of the university? Spouse?”

“Yes. Spouse.”

She handed me a clipboard. “Fill this out.”

“I really just wanted to talk to a doctor, first. I

“None of the doctors are in right now. But by the time you fill out these forms, and wait your turn,” she nodded toward a room full of apathetic looking young people slouched in plastic bucket chairs, “then I’m sure-

“I was hoping to not have to wait all day. All I really need is a pregnancy test.”

The woman’s eyes immediately slid down to my stomach and back to my face again. She raised an eyebrow. I have never lost my amazement at the unapologetic audacity of American girls. I raised a brow back at her, regaining a sense of outrage.

“Well,” she shuffled for something in a drawer to her right, “we don’t do those here. You’ll have to go to Planned Parenthood.” She handed me a card. “Here’s the address and number of the nearest one.”

I took the card. “Thank you.”

She pursed her lips, and looked back down at her desk.

I had to smile. I was the one carrying a life in me. For the first time I allowed hope to carry me through the lobby, back out into the glaring sun.

I should have called first. I had a habit, perhaps cultivated from childhood, of simply arriving places. It didn’t bother me to find that I had to wait or come back another day. I usually took my camera with me. In my mind, no venture was a wasted one, but Dag complained that the shortest errand became a field trip with me.

“This is not the third world, Riva,” he was fond of saying. “People run on schedules here.”

The lady at the Planned Parenthood was more forgiving. She acted as though my unexpected arrival was her personal failure.   “Of course, we are happy to take drop-ins,” she explained, in a fluster. She flitted around, assembling a clipboard and plastic cup and label, all the while she was talking. “But we could have warned you that a first morning urine sample was preferableunless you are quite far along in the pregnancy” she paused to cast a discerning eye on me, “but, you will probably want to go ahead and have a blood test done also. Just to be absolutely certain.” She handed me the small pile of supplies she had assembled. “Don’t apply the label until after you collect the sample,” she added. “Then bring it to me, and you can fill out all the forms.” She smiled and nodded toward a door. “That’s the ladies room.”

I was dismayed to hear that it would be several days before I learned the outcome of the tests.

“You will need to make another appointment,” the woman said, labeling the vile of blood a nurse had just drawn from my arm. “In a few days.”

“Can I simply call? I have a telephone.” This was one of those things I was likely to say that made Dag so furious. Of course you have a telephone, Riva. This is America.

“Oh no,” the woman shook her head vigorously, and at first I believed she was taking exception to the fact that I had a telephone. That’s where my train of thought had taken me, and so I missed what she said next. Then she said, “It’s simply our policy. When would be a good time for you?”

“To make an appointment?”

“Yes, dear.”

I rehearsed the trip in my head, the long walk to the bus stop, two bus transfers, the shorter walk to the clinic, a wait, and then the return trip. It would be most of the day again.

“As soon as possible.”

“Well, how does Friday sound?”          

Friday sounded far away. It was Monday.

“At two o’clock?”

A two o’clock appointment meant I would not get home before Dag that day- that was, if he came home at all. More and more he was staying on campus to write in his office. Sometimes he stayed all night. 

“Do you have something earlier?” I asked. If he got home before me, he would want to know where I had been and why I hadn’t taken the car. I shunned the car for trips into the city. The traffic, the parking, the enigma of the streets terrified me; Dag said I drove like an eighty-year-old woman.

“No, but I can put you in at ten o’clock on Monday morning.”

“Friday at two will be fine then.”  I had four whole days to wait. Days of wrestling hope pinned by fear. Of being consumed with wonder.

          

When I returned that Friday, a different woman was sitting behind the desk. I was directed into an adjacent office where another woman was watering plants.  She seemed surprised when I entered. I just wanted to be alone in the safety of my home to ponder it all. I told myself that I had an open mind, that if I was not pregnant it only confirmed what I had felt all along, but as soon as I sat, and then she sat, I realized how much I had let myself hope there was a life inside me and how destroyed I would be if there was not. Before she ever said a word, I began to cry.

The woman quickly jumped up from her seat and came around to me. She held out a box of tissues, and put a hand on my shoulder.

“I’m sorry,” I sniffled.

She patted me. “It’s alright. Lots of women get very emotional about this.”

“It’s only that-“

“I know. I know,” she said. She sat in a chair next to me, and put a hand on my leg.

I composed myself.

“Your pregnancy test was positive.” She squeezed my knee a little.

“It was? Positive?”

She nodded. Her eyes were filled with sorrow, leading me to think I’d misunderstood.

“Positive means…”

“You are pregnant.” She offered me another tissue.

I blew my nose and smiled.

She withdrew her hand, and leaned back in her seat beside me. “Is this good news for you?”

“Oh yes!” I laughed, and phlegm sprayed out of my nose. “Oh!”

She laughed. “That’s okay. This is so wonderful! Most of our clients are not so pleased.”

“You are sure?”

She nodded, and stood to retrieve a file folder from her desk. “The blood test confirmed it. You are not sure when your last period was?”

“No. I thought I had it a few times but then it stopped and started and was not normal.”

She frowned. “But you have not bled recently have you?”

I hadn’t. Not in weeks. I shook my head. “I am soI just got used to the idea of not having children.”

“Well you are fortunate to be so flexible. Not everyone can make the switch as easily as you. Mentally, that is.”

“Oh, I’ve always wanted children. I don’t have any.”

She smiled. “You have one.”

I stared at her, and then I understood. We laughed. A baby! My mind was so full of thoughts.

She wanted to talk about doctors and prenatal care, and I wanted to sing and dance. I wanted to fly to Tenerife to tell Consuela, as irrational as that was. My mother and my father! How pleased they would be. Gina Sugarland and I would go to lunch and celebrate. I do not believe I thought of Dag once.

I promised to make an appointment with one of the doctors on a list she gave me. I don’t remember leaving, or the walk to the bus stop, or the two transfers, or the long, hot walk back home. The house was dark and stuffy, but I flopped happily on the sofa and fell fast asleep.

 

I would name her Evangeline (I was certain it would be a girl) after my favorite poem as a child. In my mind, I lived out her entire life. How she would look at two and three, how I would dress her for her first day of school. How we would paint together and write bad poetry that would make Dag laugh after her bedtime. The pictures I would take of her, the stories I would read to her, the books she would learn to love to read herself. I would talk with her about life and love, and we would share great secrets, giggling in bed together at night, and holding tea parties in the yard for her dolls during the days. I would brush her long, glossy hair and tie ribbons in it. My mother and father would come visit us and perhaps even stay, all of us together in our home. They would see what a happy family we were. They would forgive me for marrying Dag, for not choosing their god, or their way of life.

Evangeline would be the strand that plaited us together.

I dreamt of the day she would come to me and tell me she was in love. We would talk about love and marriage and babies. Dag and I would love the boy also, and welcome him into our family. We would have grandchildren and they would play in our yard in the evenings while their parents went out. In our old age Dag and I would sit, graying but wise, and watch them play, smiling at the life we had created.

As soon as the pregnancy was confirmed, I wondered at the strength of will that had kept me from clearly knowing before. Suddenly none of my clothes fit. My belly was a small, but tightly stuffed pillow. I had lost my appetite for almost all my favorite foods. I craved salt but could not stomach the smell of vinegar. The signs had all been there I realized; little Evangeline had been speaking to me from her hidden nest deep inside. I determined to rejoice in every ache and pain for the rest of my pregnancy.

Dag was gone evenings most of the time now; he said he was happy and writing better than in years. I chose to not distract him in those first days and simply cherished the time that Evangeline and I shared. I fixed only meals that pleased me, and ate as much or as little as I wanted. I was under no one’s scrutiny. I felt exhilarated and free, even as I carried the weight of my responsibility to the tiny being growing within.

A few days of keeping the good news from Dag lengthened into a week, then two.

I told myself that it would be unkind to disrupt his attention at the height of his productivity. He was developing a body of work, he told me. He hoped to publish again in the near future. He was very secretive about his work, as always, and I comforted myself with the knowledge that I had a secret this time also.

I called a doctor, the only woman on the list that Planned Parenthood had given me. She was, thankfully, not in the city, but close to the University, and I drove the car to our appointment. Walking from the parking lot to the office building, in the hallways and elevators, the people I met were friendly and responsive to me. Evangeline had brought an aura of goodwill into my life and it must have showed in my countenance, even the way I moved. I felt blessed, touched by God for the first time since I was a little girl.

The doctor was a gentle, soft-spoken woman, much older than me, and kind. After her exam and some prodding of my belly, she told me she thought I was about fourteen weeks pregnant. She showed me how to count the weeks backward to when I became pregnant, and set the date of the birth for forty weeks from then. April 12.

“Of course, babies come when they want to,” she added.

There was so much that I didn’t know about growing babies. The doctor showed me pictures in a small pamphlet of what Evangeline would look like at each stage of development. She was already a little person floating inside me, with arms and legs and fingers and toes. I listened to her heart beating through the stethoscope.

“Are you sure that’s not just my heart?”

“No. Listen,” the doctor said. “It’s much faster than your own heart.”

Evangeline’s heart was thrumming at double time, a tiny, but steady pulse inside me.

The doctor gave me vitamins to take every day, and was surprised to hear that I had not told my husband yet.  “I’m going to schedule you for a sonogram next week,” she said. “That’s where we will take a peek at the baby using sound waves. Your husband will want to be present for that. Couples get very excited about it. The pictures are grainy and difficult to understand at first, but the technician will help you figure it out. At this stage we should be able to see the baby’s spine and heart, most of its major organs, and even count fingers and toes if we’re lucky.”

Years ago, at Connecticut College, one of the wives had a sonogram picture of their newborn hanging on the refrigerator. It was a scratchy black and white Polaroid, but after looking at it a few seconds, I could recognize the outline of a baby’s profile. Their baby had its thumb stuck in its mouth.

I would see Evangeline in a week.

It was time to tell Dag.

He did not come home that evening. I called him at work the next day.

“Can you come home for dinner tonight? I have something important to talk about.”

I heard him take in a deep breath. “Is something wrong?”

“No. Everything is very good. This will be a good talk.”

“Okay. You scared me for a minute. Let’s go out to dinner.”

We almost never could afford to go out. But in my head I imagined the perfect meal, the perfect evening here at home. “I want to make you something special tonight.”

He laughed. “Okay. What is it? Can’t you tell me over the phone?”

“No. You have to wait. Just come home.”

“I’m dying of curiosity here,” he said. “Now you’ve spoiled any chance of my getting some work done.”

“Good,” I said mischievously.  “Some things are more important than work. I’ll see you tonight.”

“Riva,” he said. “I love you.”

An hour later when he walked through the front door, I was resting in the dark on the sofa. I jumped up when I heard the door open and the daylight blinded me for a moment. He was just a large shadow in the doorway, but I didn’t have time to be afraid, because he spoke right away.

“You know I’m a terrible waiter.”

At first I was angry. This wasn’t how it was supposed to be. I had it all planned, and, as usual, Dag dominated and changed everything.  But when he turned on the light, I saw his face, like a little boy on his birthday, wondering what the surprise was.

“You’re such a baby,” I teased. We kissed. He smelled rumpled and musky, and I could smell the alcohol from the night before still on his breath.

“You’re drinking while you write?” I didn’t mean it as an accusation, but he was the one who always said that his writing was no good when he drank.

He stepped away from me. “Not much. And it’s working this time. It’s good stuff, Riva.” He sounded angry, defensive.

We were off to a bad start, so I tried a lighter tone. “When do I get to read it?”

“Why? So you can check it? You’re the one who doesn’t know anything about poetry, Riva. You don’t understand it, remember?”

I began to panic. This was not the way it should be. “I like to read your work, Dag. You know that. It always sounds beautiful to me.”

“It’s not ready,” he said grumpily. “Is this why you invited me home? So you could interrogate me?”

“I didn’t mean to interrogate you. And do you need an invitation to your own home? Isn’t that an odd thing to say?”

“Isn’t it an odd thing that I would feel that way? Yes it is. That my own wife makes me feel as though I need permission to be here? I think that is very odd.”

I didn’t understand what he was saying. I was dumfounded. As always, he was able to turn the tables and make the innocent words that came out of my mouth seem ugly. I knew I would not be telling him about Evangeline that day.

“You can go now,” I said, feeling stubborn. “The surprise is over.”

“Oh, big surprise. That I was invited to return to my own home. Do I owe you a thank you note for this, Riva?”

It was not what I had said, not what I had meant. “You were the one who talked about being invited. Not I.”

He backed even further away, mimicking me with his hands put up in mock surrender. “Not I, not I, she says. I am perfect. I am pure.”

I started to cry. “Please go, Dag. Go back to your classes, to your writing, or whatever you really do there.” It was cruel, I know. Just when I needed him to make us a family, I drove the wedge between us deeper.

He did go. He slammed the door so hard that it splintered on the hinge. I heard him on the front walk take the bicycle that he used to travel back and forth to campus, and smash it against the cement sidewalk. A moment later the car engine revved, then squealed, then roared away, fading as Dag sped down the road to escape from me.

He did not come home for three days. For the first two days, I was happy he was gone. I did not care if he ever came back. I entertained thoughts of leaving him and raising Evangeline on my own. It was a glorious fantasy. On the third day, I panicked. I began to imagine his dead body lying in the crumpled ruins of our car at the bottom of an overpass. Or worse still, dangling from a rope in his office. I tortured myself with grim scenarios, but my pride would not let me call the University. If he was still alive, let him wonder why I was not wondering. It was a silly game of chicken that I played with our lives that week, more stubborn and proud than humble and forgiving. As the third day became the fourth night I grew increasingly desperate, remembering only his arms, his mouth, his incredible whispering words of love. I told myself I would die of yearning before I caved in and called him, but there was no deluding myself- I was dying of yearning for him.

I tried to distract myself with thoughts of Evangeline and our new life together, but always those thoughts were of the three of us; I could not strain out Dag from the scenarios that played in my head. If only I was not such a mule when he got angry or moody. It was only the artist in him that made him the way he was. It was what I loved about him.

Evangeline, I knew in my soul, would have Dag’s temperament, but we would raise her in gentleness and mercy, not with the harsh, utilitarian outlook that Dag’s mother imposed on those around her. Dag would bring the light of language and philosophy into her life, and I would warm the cold winter of her father’s heart with the warmth of Mediterranean blood. She would be perfect.

Dag returned in the middle of the night. I was in bed, but not asleep. During my pregnancy sleep eluded me at night, then dogged me through the day. I heard the creak of his steps in the hall, and the weary drop of his body onto the sofa in the living room. He was not coming to me. He was merely seeking sleep. I listened to his snores until the sun rose. I fell asleep preparing the words to tell him about Evangeline.

When I woke, he was gone again. Of course, he had needed to return to campus, he had classes to teach. Still, I was despondent at the thought of another day stretching before me, waiting for when he would arrive home. I considered taking the bus to Price Club to look for baby furniture, but my heart was not in it. The only spare room we had was Dag’s office. I could not really submerge myself in redecorating when all his belongings cluttered the room. Dag was a wall that came between me and all my plans, my dreams. I despised him for his self-centeredness. I despised myself for my timidity.

That same day he surprised me by returning only a few hours later. I was ashamed to still be in my nightgown, and the look of disgust on his face when he saw me told me he felt the same way. Still, I was pleased, in a crafty way, because it was clear to see how my breasts had swollen and my belly brushed against the folds of the sheer gown. He would have to notice that. He would understand my listlessness also, once he knew about Evangeline.

“How nice,” he said, throwing his satchel down to the floor. “You’ve slept the day away.”

“I’ve been awake,” I said. “But I have something to tell you.”

 His expression became guarded, frightened even. I took a small comfort in knowing that I still had some power over him, but it wasn’t the way I wanted it to be. Far from it. I touched his arm to let him know all was forgiven.

 “Come sit down,” I said. He was reluctant, like a trapped animal. I pulled him to the sofa, and smiled for him, willing him to relax. If only he knew how fine it could be for us, the three of us, if he would relax. “You’ve been working too hard,” I told him. “And I’ve been selfish.” I began to massage his neck.

He tilted his head a little. I really did feel as if I was trying to soothe a scared rabbit. I had only my words, and I was not good with words. Not like he was. If there were a God in this world, he would surely make my words come out right this one time. So far, Dag had looked only in my eyes, not once at my body, which was screaming the truth for him to see.

“I am very happy for youfor usthat your writing is going so well.  I also have a project, and it has made me distracted lately. That is what I wanted to tell you about.”

“Okay.” He was wary, but listening.

“Thisprojectis a secret from everyone but us for a while. It is growing in secret that is.” Dag was restless, shifting in his seat. I hoped he would guess what I was hinting at, but he continued looking at me with his scared, watchful, eyes. “We are going to have a baby,” I said quickly.

He said nothing, as if he was waiting for the interesting part. Perhaps I had said it too quickly. Perhaps he had not understood me.

“You and me,” I said stupidly.

“Maybe you’re mistaken,” he said, getting up.

“Well, no…” Was he afraid, like I had been? Afraid to hope? “The tests came back positive. I am pregnant.”

“Maybe you’re mistaken about it being you and me.” He took off his shirt and balled it up, tossing it in the direction of the bedroom. It came unfurled, caught the air like a sail and fell lazily to the floor.

“What are you saying, Dag?”

“Only that this is just a bad time, don’t you think? What went wrong anyway? I thought you were taking care of things.”

I had no answer for him.  My mouth hung open, and I must have looked like a fool.

“Oh never mind, Riva. Just forget the whole goddamn thing.” He knotted the shirt and hurled it again; it flew like a missile into the bedroom, and he followed it. Moments later, wearing a new shirt, he walked out of the house. Our little house shuddered from top to bottom as he slammed the door.

I didn’t think of myself, or even Evangeline during those minutes I sat on the sofa.  I thought only about Dag, how he was normally so undemonstrative, how much emotion must have been churning inside him to bring him to the point where he reacted with physical violence against his environment, first smashing the bicycle, now this.  I remembered my father, the sounds behind closed doors, the soft cries, sharp bangs, and thuds of my childhood nights. A primitive fear shuddered through my body at those sounds, now experienced again as a grown up, with an illuminating understanding I had not had before. I saw that life could transform a quiet, disciplined man into a monster, and I knew the helplessness that my mother must have felt, the powerlessness to react.

Dag did not return for another three days. For most of it I lay curled in a self-hug, rocking, like some demented creature. Sometimes the endless hours of silence in the house were punctured by the startling sound of my own primitive wails. I cried for myself. I cried for my mother and father and the whole world of the broken hearted. I don’t remember eating, or sleeping, or getting up to go to the bathroom. By some miracle, the morning Dag returned to the house I was up and dressed and moving in a stupor of efficiency through each day. But I was not a real, waking person.

He never mentioned our conversation, or the baby. It was as though it never happened, as though it could be erased through the sheer neglect of it as a topic of conversation. We went for weeks like that I think. We ate dinner; we positioned ourselves side by side in bed like horizontal posted sentries. Gradually we relearned how to come in contact with each other, a graze in passing, a brush or tap in the bed.  All the while Evangeline was a growing force within me, but I no longer entered the interior room of my thoughts where I considered such sensations.

Finally a morning came when, after Dag had risen, showered, and ridden off to school, the first concrete thought of what this all must lead to scrolled like Teletype across my thoughts.

I had a problem.

I knew, as women do, that there were places to go, things I could do. It was the eighties; such procedures were legal and safe. Gradually over the days, I had conversations with myself, coached myself, encouraged myself, fed myself bits and pieces of gleaned information. Dag became even busier with his writing, and I made excuses to friends who wanted to see us. None of us scrutinized the others’ lives so much that we couldn’t comfortably withdraw to tend to the underbelly of life. We were modern people, and understood that things happened.

I skipped the next appointment with my doctor, instead returning to talk to one of the endless parade of young women who staffed the front desk at Planned Parenthood. I found myself once again in an examining room with my legs splayed, knees and teeth chattering.

“You are quite far along,” the doctor said, in a way that indicated this personally annoyed him. The snapping sound of his gloves as he discarded them punctuated his disappointment in me.

The nurse quickly pulled the paper apron over my legs and lifted my wobbly knees, first one, then the other, out of their metal saddles. I struggled to a sitting position feeling betrayed by my body, ungainly beyond reason. I was only just beginning to show, I told myself. How far along could that be? The woman at Planned Parenthood had told me it would not be a problem, would definitely not be a problem, but this doctor wanted to talk about it.  “Why do you want to do this now? Why did you wait so long?”

How did I answer? I do not honestly know. The thinking, feeling part of me was not there. I was on the sidelines, snapping pictures, balancing light and dark, composition and details. It was a dramatic scene; patient, doctor, nurse, the nurse especially interesting, offsetting the central drama with a look of practiced distraction.

I was to be scheduled for a procedure the next day at the local hospital.  If all went well, the doctor said, I would be able to leave the same day.  He wore his distaste for me like a stain on his necktie. When he left the room, the nurse apologized for him, and assured me that they dealt with these situations all the time. I collected my handbag, checked my pockets, and smoothed my skirt.  She laid a hand on my shoulder before I left, and I felt hardly able to bear the weight of it.

In the hospital waiting room the next day, I was like a child nursing a hurt, huddled in a corner with her belongings gathered around her. I was aware of all that was happening, but it was reduced to mere noise. I remember that a nurse called my name and at some point I put my belongings, car keys, purse, shoes and clothes, into a locker. I was ushered into yet another waiting room with a couple of other women. We wore flimsy hospital gowns, soft and nubby from washing. No one spoke. Another nurse offered me a pill in a little green paper cup. To relax me, she said. I took it obediently. It did relax me. In fact, before my wait was over I began to feel a tremendous sense of wellbeing, even hopefulness, something which had eluded me for quite a long time. Years maybe.

When they were ready, the room they shuffled me into was cold and bright. I lied down on a bed with a thin hospital blanket. The nurse put an IV into my arm.  After a while a doctor came in, and the nurse held my hand and told me to look at her. I felt a sharp pain and a burning in my abdomen as the doctor pressed on my lower belly. When the nurse released my hand, the doctor flipped the blanket over me, and they both left. My legs began quaking, perhaps sensing the panic that was by passing my brain.

I do not know how long I was there. I wondered if it was over, if I was free to go. But I still had a bag of fluid draining into my arm, and my head was swimming with strange thoughts, waking dreams. I might have slept, but a rumbling woke me, a dreadful inner disturbance, like the onset of diarrhea. I needed to get up and go to the bathroom or I would soil myself, and I remember crying out for the nurse, but at the same time wondering how I would manage getting to the bathroom on my own when my head was in such a state.

The nurse appeared at my side, holding my hand again. She looked at the clock on the wall as she spoke to me.

“It won’t be so bad,” she said. “No worse than childbirth, really.”

I had heard childbirth was terrible.

Increasingly, the muddle in my head was not sufficient to distract me from the alarming thrashing in my belly, which no longer appeared to be the onset of diarrhea as much as a violent alien war that was taking place inside me. A grim tickle of a thought nagged at me, and as the inner struggle progressed I became more and more alert, more and more distraught. It was the baby inside me who was struggling, the baby inside me who was fighting for life, not me.

What was happening to me? To us? Evangeline!

It seems ridiculous in hindsight, but with my thoughts in a tangle, the mother in me went on alert. I called for the nurse again. I was frantic.

“There’s something terribly wrong with the baby,” I urged.

She pressed a hand on my belly and then took my pulse.  “It will be over in a while. This is normal,” she said.

This is normal, I thought? “You don’t understand. The baby. Something is wrong.”

She patted my hand. “Any pain? Cramping? Anything at all?”

I shook my head. She was completely missing my concern. Part of me wanted to jump up and shake her in my frustration, but the other part was too tired, too bleary headed.  I drifted off.

The pain woke me. It was iridescent and searing, a scalding clamp. I could not clear my head enough to make sense of it. It surprised me, like lightening, then left, striking again while I was miles away in my mind. I rolled my head and moaned. At one point a nurse put a cool washcloth on my forehead and checked the connection of the tube draining into my arm.

“What is happening to me?” I couldn’t keep my arms and legs still, every part of me was chattering in anticipation of the next wrenching cramp.

“It will all be over soon. Don’t worry.” She pressed down hard on my belly and prodded me from different angles. The blanket was tangled around my feet in a knot. My knees were blue. I wondered if I was so drugged that I was hallucinating. I bit down on my knuckles. It was sometime after that when I saw a man in the roomthe doctor?I couldn’t remember what he had looked like. He stood at the foot of my bed and made me scoot forward. The end of my bed fell away, and suddenly there were the metal stirrups where there hadn’t been any before. The nurse placed my convulsing legs into them. My mind and body coalesced in that brief instant to remind me of what was happening.

Evangeline!

I whispered frantic messages to her in my heart. Hold on Evangeline. Don’t let go. Hold on.

“Give a push now,” the doctor said. I was too terrified to respond. Although my body was rigid, inside I was writhing with panic. The nurse and doctor together placed their hands on my belly and pressed down hard. I felt a popping in my bowels, and heard a rush of fluid, like soup being poured into a pot.

Hold on baby. Don’t go.

Someone was talking now. There was a concentration of activity, and I felt the cold, invasive pinch of the speculum, hands from on both sides of me pressing down on my thighs, keeping them still.

“There you go,” the nurse said. She smiled brightly at me. “It’s all over. You rest now.” She patted the blanket where it was pulled up on my chest, and as suddenly as the room had filled with people, it emptied and I was alone.  

I slept until they made me go home.

Lara McLaughlin is the author of the novel Alabaster Houses, from which this story is an adapted chapter. She is currently searching for an agent, while writing a second novel. She has published short stories in the Baltimore Sun Magazine, the Penn Union Magazine by Johns Hopkins University Press, and in a collection entitled Wednesday Night’s Harvest by Seedling Press. More of her writing can be found at www.laramclaughlin.org

Birth Day

by Stephanie Tames

I

On the Epiphany my father went fishing. It was the day I was born, January 6, the day the Maji reached the Christ child in Bethlehem laden with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. He drove to the Chesapeake Bay to an area he favored with a rock jetty, carefully picked his way along the sharp-edged rocks until he found one flat enough on one side to make a comfortable seat, and settled his gear and canvas bag into various crevices nearby. It was a bright and windy day, neither too gusty nor too cold, a perfect day for winter fishing for striped bass. The surf pounded against the rocks but it was still low tide when my father arrived so the spray from the plumes of cold salt water did not reach him. He kept a careful watch on the tide and the sea’s slow progress as it covered the rock jetty. He had come close many times to being stranded on the jetty as the tide rose and it was too cold that January day to risk getting soaked by the winter sea.

The story has become a family favorite. Everyone thinks it’s funny: as soon as he was told my birth meant another girl – the third in a row – my father gathered up his fishing gear and took off for the two hour drive to the bay. I guess he thought that since family and friends were watching his two older daughters and son he could take advantage of the time. He loved fishing.

I don’t think my mother thought the story was funny. Whenever it was repeated she would set her jaw tight and her lips would thin into what for my mother was neither smile nor frown but the expression she assumed often and which I imagined meant she was somewhere deep inside her head. She would stare at my father who would be telling this story, acting like he was George Burns on stage before an adoring audience.

I can imagine other families with this story: the father, like mine, guffawing, puffing out his chest as he told how it was just another kid, no big deal, the mother interrupting, telling her side like she was Gracie Allen, how she was screaming with labor pains and told him to get the hell away from her and he took her literally; how he’ll pay for that trip for the rest of his life (audience laughs), how he was really only gone a half-day and was back by evening visiting time to take all the children to see their mother and lovely baby sister with long dark hair.

II

My mother says that she and my father agreed on two children: a boy and a girl. And it happened. My brother came first, then a few years later, my oldest sister. My mother was happy. But just three months after my sister was born, my mother found herself pregnant again. She was depressed. Her health suffered. So when the baby came she asked but was denied a simple operation to tie her fallopian tubes, to wrap the tubes with thread pulled tight like a present so sperm swimming with speed and purpose can not reach the waiting egg. For my mother, it was the only thing she ever wanted.

She knew then she couldn’t take any chances. And she didn’t. But the diaphragm failed her and so did counting the days when an egg floated inside her and she was pregnant again. My father liked the idea of a big family; it was proof of his virility although he would have preferred that his virility made baby boys instead of girls.

After I was born my mother asked again, she said she begged, but the doctor refused to tie her tubes and two years later my brother was born. Whether it was her pleading that softened her doctor’s heart or my brother’s congenital heart defect, my mother finally left the hospital happy: three gifts, a boy and a knot around each of her tiny tubes.

III

We wanted to be Joni Mitchell’s Ladies of the Canyon. It was the late ‘60s and early ‘70s and we talked endlessly in a fog of pot about giving up our pampered city lives to live in communes, bake bread, reject the values that made our parents complacent and uninformed. We went to protest rallies, experimented with drugs, and took many lovers to beds on old mattresses thrown on bare wooden floors. We didn’t think about birth control. At least at first. But one friend, then another, got pregnant and we realized we didn’t want to be Ladies of the Canyon just then.

They must have sensed my mother as a kindred spirit, these young women, friends of mine but mostly of my older sisters, who always ended up at our house where my mother would help them not have babies. You had to know how to work the system and you had to have money. My mother had both. All it took was a psychiatrist who would certify that a pregnancy would be detrimental to the mental health of the mother and a doctor willing to perform the procedure. In the city it was easy to find both. It took time, however, and once it was too late. It was my cousin and she had come to live with us the year before. She hadn’t been getting along with her mother, my mother’s sister, but she fit perfectly in our big house and big, loud family, until she got pregnant. The other girls came to our house in their flowing long skirts and layers of beaded necklaces, sat at the kitchen table, and gave my mother all the details. But my cousin waited, withdrew. She didn’t want to tell her story. I don’t know why. Her mother came to take her back to South Carolina where she stayed indoors so the neighhbors wouldn’t know what she had done. There’s an old proverb: “a small town is a vast hell.” The next time we saw her she said she never looked at the baby, that it was wrapped up tight in a white blanket and given to someone waiting nearby, that the nurses gave her pills to dry the milk in her full breasts and sent her home. She didn’t come back to live with us.

My mother and I didn’t talk about whether or not I was having sex, or whether she approved. All she wanted was to make sure I wouldn’t get pregnant. I guess she didn’t trust birth control pills or trust that I would take them. She talked to her doctor and together they decided I should go to the hospital for a procedure and while there the doctor would place a tiny piece of metal shaped like a “t” in my uterus. There was no need for remembering. Pregnancy would never be an issue.

That night, still groggy from the hospital, I had a dream where I opened the front case of the big grandfather clock in the hall of my parents’ house and out tumbled hundreds of chubby naked babies smothering me under their weight.

IV

It’s barely a twinkle in his father’s eye, that’s what the doctor said to me from his seat between my legs. All I could see were eyes: his head was hidden under a white cap pulled low over his forehead. I could see his mouth forming words behind a mask that came up well over the bridge of his nose and tied high on the back of his head. He was old. It was his eyes, the only thing I could see, that told me how long he had lived.

The waiting area was crowded. There weren’t enough seats, people stood, leaning against walls. Some were so young, others looked old and worn out. Boyfriends and husbands and maybe some brothers looked uncomfortable, out of place. They kept pushing their sweaty palms down the front of their pants like they were trying to wipe away this place and glancing at the clock on the wall, counting down the hours until they’d be out in the pure light of the day away from the oppressive room, outside where they could finally breathe deeply and fill their lungs full to bursting, relieved that for them it was over.

The week before I had come in my Joan & David heels and Evan Picone suit and carried a small jar of pee in my purse. My purse was the same color as my shoes. You had to have a test before they’d put you on the schedule. I walked from the subway station but couldn’t find the office. Now I was late for work and my feet hurt. I was afraid my pee had gone bad but I had to give it to them, hand my little jar to the young woman at the counter and ask please if they would confirm what I already knew. When I walked in everyone shifted, looked up from the magazines they weren’t really reading or stopped their whispered conversations. I felt their furtive gazes. We all knew why we were there. The next week as I sat in the room in those same seats waiting my turn, I looked at every new face that came through the door and watched as unsteady hands held out jars of pee as bright as the sun.

You don’t have to take off all your clothes. Just from the waist down, that’s what they say, but leave your socks on because your feet will get cold. Lay down on the table and put your feet in the stirrups. You’re draped in white. I looked down my sheet-covered body between my legs and could see the doctor’s head, his mouth moving under his mask but I couldn’t hear anything he was saying. I looked at the nurse, she took my hand, said it was alright.  That night I dreamed again of the grandfather clock and babies, all plump arms and legs like tootsie rolls, tumbling out and spreading across the floor.

V

When we got married, my husband and I didn’t talk about if we would have children, or when. There were a lot of things about our lives together we didn’t discuss. I had long since given up the tiny “t” in my uterus, been on and off various brands of birth control pills, used condoms and diaphragms, not used anything. Didn’t really think about it. I dressed in my suits, high heels and matching bag, went to work every day happy with my job, the paycheck, the way I felt. When it happened, I knew immediately and I knew it wasn’t right. Like my mother I did not want it, did not want it in the deepest part of my being.

I don’t remember how we made the decision. I don’t remember what my husband thought, if he needed convincing, if I threatened to leave, if I screamed and cried.  I know he didn’t make the decision. It was me. Just me. I knew that it wasn’t a twinkle in my eye. I don’t know if it was in his.

VI

In Japan women visit Buddhist temples to pray to mizuko jizo, tiny statuettes that represent the babies they aborted.  It’s not that they brood over whether they made the proper decision to have an abortion but to help the spirit safely cross the river that separates the worlds of life and death. Sometimes women dress the mizuko figurines like newborns and pour water over them to quench their thirst.

My mother was afraid of the water but she went with my father to the bay to fish and after some time she came to love fishing, too, although she never lost her fear, a fear of drowning of one sort or the other.

When I was young I liked to stand at the edge of the surf and feel the pull of the water and the sinking sand under my feet and dream that the earth wanted me and to prove it with each wave I sank deeper as the earth drew me to its core. I wasn’t afraid of filling my lungs with sand and salty water. But before I slipped beneath the surface I pulled myself from the earth’s sucking hold and dove into the waves and played in the surf as my father stood fishing nearby.  Later, he taught me to fish and I too came to love standing by the water and casting my line as far as I could, from one world to the next.

Stephanie Tames is a writer, longleaf pine needle artist, and yoga instructor living in southeastern Georgia. Her publications include Self, Parenting, the Washington Post, and the Atlanta Journal Constitution. She has essays forthcoming in the Nature Conservancy Magazine. She is also a regular commentator on Georgia Public Radio.)

Small Wreckage and Single Girls

by Anne Champion

SMALL WRECKAGE

I.
The women stood at the door
with their rosaries, thrusting
the tiny beads into my hand.

I had been told to have my music on,
or maybe wear a hat, look down,
pay them no mind.

But I took them, repeating
quietly Dickinson’s lines
that had run through
my head all morning:

Shame need not crouch
In a world such as ours.
Shame-stand erect!-
The universe is yours.

II.

Who supports you in your decision today?
I pause, remember something he said
the night before:

Under different circumstances,
I could see you being a really good mother.

III.

You’d think I’d feel godless
the moment my body cried out
and the cramps came in waves
like fists beating at my insides.

But I imagined the Pieta,
in my blurred focus
of the woman standing over me,
not my mother,
cradling my head, placing
the cool washcloth to my brow, caressing
my hand, whispering
It’s okay.
You’re almost done.

IV.

My friend that came with me
said that sometimes she regretted it,
sometimes she still awoke
in the middle of the night
dreaming tiny palms beat
at the window to be let in,
but it turns out to be only a branch or rain,
as if the world wants to remind her
that it’s still there.

V.

The night I told him,
he slipped his hand beneath
my robe and caressed me.
Then he crawled beneath the blanket,
stood on his knees, and wrapped
it around his back, before he threw himself
upon me, so that the blanket followed,
inflating like a parachute,
collapsing above our heads.
And then it was like any other time
and every other man I’ve kissed:
everything went black,
and then went black again.

VI.

Sex is the only common religion
we all worship.  On our knees,
we become both God and prayer,
devotion in its purest,
most fervent form.
Yet how consistently we
crush our idols.

VII.

I asked the woman to see it,
but all there was to see
was a dark spot on the screen,
the shape and size of a lima bean,
a blip on the radar of my life,
small wreckage to be sunk
in the vast ocean,
inconsequential.

VII.

When I came to, the woman
guided me to a wheelchair.
I asked for something to vomit in,
and began creating a hierarchy of pain,
running moments through my head
that hurt worse-the tattoo I got when
I was eighteen, the broken thumb,
the infected wisdom teeth,
a broken heart.

SINGLE GIRLS
for Adrinna Morris

We are not the women on TV,
not the women of light and shadows,
sitting at bars, looking at each other
through the transparent colors
of glowing red, green, purple, and blue
we sip on, no crescent lemon twist
lying at the bottom of the martini glass,
nothing to make us feel wild
and desirable.

                        *

This world was not designed for one.
The monthly rent and bills assume at least two,
a couple to justify the cost.
Everywhere we turn we see
“value” and “family size;”
a box of macaroni and cheese
becomes a waste of money and food
and then there’s the stench
of old produce and expired milk;
we scour grocery aisles
for small cans of beans.

                                    *

I lay on your bed in sweatshirt and jeans,
and you’re in your pajamas listening
to me cry, again, over him.
You have your new baby on your knee
and she can’t stop crying either.
I ask relentlessly, When? How?
I am a broken machine.

                        *

Your daughter is marvelous
in her lack of a past.  Her skin,
translucent with the first bloom of life,
her wondrous brown eyes,
shiny marbles gazing up at me.
I don’t want to believe
that she, too, will have to reinvent
herself over and over again
and, like us, hope
to be good at it someday.

                        *

Tonight the moon shows
only her good side.
The other side is slid neatly
into the sky’s darkness
like a slit in an envelope.
She does this sometimes, slips
part of herself quietly from sight,
forced to go under.

Anne Champion recently finished her MFA in Poetry at Emerson College. She has work previously published in Our Time is Now, The Minnetonka Review, Pank Magazine, The Aurorean, and elsewhere.  She was also a 2009 recipient of The Academy of American Poets Prize.  She currently teaches Freshman
Composition at Emerson College, Pine Manor College, and Massachusetts College of Pharmacy.
You may read some of her other work at the following links:

http://www.glass-poetry.com/volume-two/issue-three.html
http://foggedclarity.com/contributors/#anne
http://www.pankmagazine.com/?p=358

Abortion & Race Controversy

Black women in Atlanta are up in arms over controversial billboards pointing out that black women have abortions in disproportionate numbers. There’s an interesting newsvideo by ABC that talked to people from both sides of the debate, both sides bringing up salient points. The group behind the billboards is an organization called The Endangered Species Project.

Review of Impossible Motherhood: Testimony of an Abortion Addict

Impossible Motherhood: Testimony of an Abortion Addict

by Irene Vilar (www.irenevilar.com)

Other Press, 2009, $15.95

 

Review by Jessica Powers

 

Irene Vilar’s second memoir explores a part of her life that she left out of her first memoir entirely—the fifteen abortions she had over the course of fifteen years.

 

Twelve of those abortions were pregnancies with the same man, a former professor, a man more than thirty years older, who became her lover when she was still a teenager. Ultimately, he became her husband and, as she refers to him, her “master.” She wanted a baby every time she conceived—an average of every 8 months, with the exception of a year and a half when she was working on her first memoir and remembered to take birth control pills—but knew that she had to choose between her life and her love. “Pregnant, my life felt less-sub-human,” she writes. Yet from the beginning, her husband had told her how “women’s desires for children killed each one of his love stories” (p. 51). Vilar knew that if she ever decided not to terminate one of her pregnancies, she would be terminating the relationship instead. “If you are grown up enough to have a child, you are just as fit to be a single mother,” he told her. “But I will not be a victim of your displacement” (83).

 

She saw each pregnancy as a “death sentence” for the relationship but also “a chance to rise above it, and above him” (79). Yet each time, she chose to end the pregnancy instead of the relationship. Vilar suggests she was addicted to abortion, but I would argue she was addicted to this particular man, a cruel master who cared more for his own comfort than for the woman he spent so many years “loving.” On the other hand, if she was addicted to the man, she never would have jeopardized the relationship so often by becoming pregnant, so perhaps she is on target when she admits that the cycle of pregnancy-and-abortion fed some destructive need. She felt validated, even “aroused,” by each pregnancy, panicked by the possible demise of her relationship, and simultaneously relieved and empty whenever she had an abortion.

 

Throughout the story, Vilar explores the ways her mother’s suicide when she was 8 left her feeling abandoned and homeless, linking that incident to her own struggles as an adult. She talks about her family’s propensity to addiction—her mother’s addiction to Valium, her father’s addiction to gambling and alcohol, her brothers’ addictions to heroin, and her own to abortion. She explores the damage done to her psyche at a young age but she fails to link her feelings of abandonment to her willingness to submit herself—body, mind, and soul—to a man in his fifties when she was only 17. She fails to acknowledge the betrayal of the feminist movement, which has fought (and continues to fight) for women’s right to an “out” when they find themselves with an untenable pregnancy but which has never provided a sufficient structure for dealing with the psychological and physiological damage of abortion, particularly repeat abortions. And what of the many doctors, family members, and friends who sat back and watched as Vilar tried to destroy her own body? Vilar lets them off the hook without much protest.

 

Vilar’s story is not one for the faint-hearted, nor is it for adamant pro-life or pro-choice advocates. The questions surrounding Vilar’s multiple pregnancies, her legal right to choose, her recognition of and desire for the many lives conceived within her womb but whose voices were silenced before they were even heard are necessarily messy questions.  Vilar’s life is a chaotic, disordered one and she doesn’t shy away from showing just how confused she was for most of her adult life. One of the truths her story demonstrates is that by insisting on the right to “sex on demand” with whomever and whenever we want, protected from all physical consequences like pregnancy, we have forgotten that sex carries with it incredible power, a power which can be abused and a power which can be destructive. Vilar’s husband was guilty of abusing that power. Whether Vilar was ever conscious of abusing that power is hard to say; it’s certainly possible to question whether a 17-year-old girl, suffering from scars related to her mother’s suicide, separated from her surviving parent by thousands of miles, and involved in relationship with a man old enough to be her father, can exercise a completely conscious right to choose.

 

Ultimately, the line separating Vilar’s belief in her right to choose and her recognition of the life within is very, very thin—almost non-existent. When she is pregnant for the sixteenth time, a pregnancy she carries to term, she describes the ultrasound of her daughter taken eighteen weeks before she was born. “The ultrasound images show clearly a miniature head tilted back, an arm raised up, with the hand pointing back toward the face. It would have been possible and permissible to end her life at this point” (208).

 

Thus Vilar ends the final chapter of her book, completely blurring the line between pro-life and pro-choice politics as she recognizes her daughter’s existence and acknowledges the many times she had, in the past, exercised her right to choose.




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