“I wish I could help you.” Dr. S. picks up his mother-and-child paperweight and looks at it instead of at me. There’s a moment of silence between us while we tacitly agree that he can’t help me. “We’ve been sending our girls to Planned Parenthood. They arrange something in New York.”
Up to then I was doing fine, but suddenly the view of Grant Park out his office window blurs and wavers and I’m crying all over his expensive desk, blubbering about how I don’t want to go to New York and I don’t want any more kids and how could I get pregnant with that three-inch coil in my uterus–Jesus Christ, what next? Dr. S. hands me Kleenex and pats my hand and tells me I’ll be fine. He’s good at that. I think they teach them how in med school.
Once I decide to have the abortion, I want it right away. It’s horrible: in less than a week, the thing will be dead, and I have to carry it around inside me until then. I’m nauseated, my breasts are rising like bread dough, my mind turns inward–I’m thoroughly pregnant, and the little beast is no bigger than my fingernail. Doomed from the start, poor dear, and yet it keeps sucking away, cells dividing like mad, as if it were going to live forever. Like the time I raised a motherless lamb on a bottle and then had it slaughtered and made into chops and roasts and lamburger. Poor Lamby kept eating out of my hand right up to the last minute. That’s how I lured him into the truck for his last ride to the butcher, with a handful of Purina lamb pellets, his favorite.
“My physician advised me to consult you for counseling on pregnancy termination.”
That was what Dr. S. told me to say, and I wrote it down and read it off a card. I do that a lot. The telephone disorients me and I blurt out dumb stuff unless I plan ahead. What I wanted to say was, “Help! I’m pregnant.” But that wouldn’t do at all. The person on the other end sounded as though she were reading off a card too: “The next counseling sessions are on Saturday. Bring your proof of pregnancy.” They wouldn’t let you in without a note from your doctor.
Planned Parenthood was taking no chances. For more than a year, women had been flying to New York City to get legal abortions, but in Chicago in 1973, abortion was still illegal, and so was, sort of, nobody knew for sure, giving out information on how to go about getting one. Women’s groups were under surveillance, their phones tapped, and the women’s bookstore on Halsted, where they gave free pregnancy tests, had been closed down twice while police searched the shelves for God-knows-what. It was a very paranoid time.
At 9:20 AM I try the door of suite 304 at 17 N. Wabash; it’s locked. Then another woman shows up and goes through the same motions: Stride briskly down the hall as if on some important but impersonal errand–delivering a small package perhaps. Try the door–surprise, it’s locked. Back up and check the address, referring to a slip of paper secreted in the palm of the hand.
We look at each other uneasily. Both of us had assumed we would be alone. We lean against the wall a discreet, private distance apart, and wait. We had dressed carefully for this interview: what will look the least like a woman-going-to-see-about-an-abortion? She is wearing a smart Marshall Field’s suit and shoes with stacked heels. Also sunglasses, a nice touch. I had decided on sneakers and blue jeans and my best silk blouse.
More women arrive: a zaftig 16-year-old and her waitressy-looking mother; a couple of black women, one middle-aged, one young; a technicolor Spanish woman; a Grace Kelly in white duck sailing pants and chignon; a student wearing a backpack and hiking boots; and a dark-haired teenager with a patch on her jeans that says “Make Love Not War.” The last to arrive, she is the first to speak: “Well,” she says, seeing us sprawled and waiting, “this must be the place.”
I go into automatic pilot, the way I get through all unpleasant experiences: the dentist, the gynecologist, job interviews, the unemployment line. I can endure anything, even standing in a herd of pregnant women waiting to be aborted. Why had I wondered what to wear, why not come naked?
The Planned Parenthood lady arrives an hour late: apologetic, blond, scatterbrained, wearing a cape. She looks about 20. “I’ll just counsel you all at once,” she says.
What began as a private sorrow is suddenly public. It tied my guts in knots just to tell my doctor. Getting around to phoning Planned Parenthood was a day’s work. And now here are nine other women who know, and the Planned Parenthood lady, and I see it escalating: United Airlines (why else do young women in blue jeans fly round-trip to New York?), the staff of the New York clinic, the cab driver . . . I remembered a drawing in an old medical book: a woman with a faint, knowing smile, her body slit open from craw to vent. With one hand she was pointing vaguely at her abdomen where her reproductive organs were labeled in elegant italic script.
I wanted to hide under the back porch like a sick dog, but I had to sit in the Planned Parenthood office with nine other women and listen to a blond tootsie talk about my private parts.
The Planned Parenthood lady hauls out a pink plastic model of a uterus and starts to explain the “procedure.” Dr. S. has explained this to me already, using the same model. Somewhere there is a factory that turns them out by the thousands. It comes apart like a Chinese puzzle, and I pay close attention to it, so I don’t have to look at the other women. The tootsie is explaining how the tube of the aspiration machine (“Actually, it’s like a small vacuum cleaner”) is inserted into the cervix. “The tube is about the size of a ballpoint pen,” she says, and demonstrates on the model with her ballpoint pen. I feel the cold plastic in my own cervix; my insides pause, listen.
A heavy silence fills the room. Someone says, “Does it hurt?” And suddenly the blond has everyone’s attention. “Well,” she says, “they put a shot of novocaine in your cervix . . . ”
I see the dentist’s long novocaine needle–up inside of me? Into my cervix? Am I going to come back from this in packages, like Lamby?
We sit there as calmly as if we were taking a knitting lesson. The Planned Parenthood lady doesn’t look 20 after all. She has a thin line across her forehead, and tiny nicks under her eyes–a forecast of how she will look when she’s 50.
” . . . but it doesn’t help much. It’s pretty bad.”
Now is the time to leave.
She tries to back off; she wasn’t supposed to tell the truth. “But then, I’m not very brave. I always need novocaine at the dentist. And it only takes a few minutes, so you just think positive thoughts–think about the rest of your life . . . ”
I never need novocaine at the dentist, and I tell myself that I am a brave person, and I ignore the moment when I saw that little line appear on the blond’s forehead.
I believe in omens, I do. But most of the time, when a real, live, ripe omen shows itself, you can’t do anything about it. Omen upon omen and you have to ignore them all and march bravely ahead or miss your bus, which might be worse.
She asks each of us if we want to go ahead with it and everyone says yes and she gives us instructions typed on a file card:
Douche with Isodine in the morning (You can get this at Walgreen’s, she says)
Clinic limousine will meet you on the hour outside your airline’s arrival gate
Take with you: proof of pregnancy, four hospital-size Kotex (Walgreen’s again), $200 cash, and this card
There’s no name or address of the clinic, no telephone number, no secret password.
That was Saturday morning. I was to go to New York Monday morning. All Saturday afternoon and evening, and all day Sunday and Sunday evening, I sat on the couch with my knees pulled up to my chin, being pregnant. I went to the bathroom a lot, sucked my thumb, cried, watched television, and witnessed the slow disintegration of my brain.
Ever since conception, my mind had been fading out. That had been the first symptom–a sudden loss of voltage. I was stuck on one channel, all the others were blown. How’s your job? Baby. Did you pay the rent? Baby. Want to go shopping? Want to go to bed? Want to put one foot ahead of the other? Babybabybaby. I even thought up names for the thing.
I’ll have a nervous breakdown, I thought. I’ll just lie here and swell up and someone else will have to take care of me. It sounded very attractive. When you see a cow standing motionless in a field, chewing her cud and staring at the horizon, chances are she’s pregnant.
Larry can’t understand any of this. What has become of his smarty-pants girlfriend? She is sniveling in an old flannel bathrobe, hair frowsy, feet bare, eyes blank, watching an old Blondie movie.
Supportive. He is being supportive. “Honey, you shouldn’t sit here and brood. Go shopping. Go for a walk. It’ll help pass the time.”
Very logical, quite right, no sense to this. He is jaunty this morning in his biking pants and running shoes with little wings on the sides. I am stopped, still; he paces, alights, jumps up again.
“Come on, get your bike. We’ll go by the lake. Get some air.” Silence. “Or don’t you feel good?” Sudden solicitude. A pregnant woman, of course, she’s ill. Nausea, right? Maybe varicose veins. Boil water. He perches beside me on the couch, looks anxiously into my face. Poor Larry. His hair is cut too short, makes his ears stick out. He looks about 11. His arm across my shoulder rests lightly as a bird’s wing. I have grown fast to the couch.
“What’s the matter? Do you want to have the kid?”
“Leave me alone.” I am surprised we speak the same language.
“I mean, you can, we can, it’s OK. We’ll get married. Really, whatever you want.” Blondie and Dagwood and Baby Dumpling are about to rent a haunted room in a hotel. Larry is ready to spring up, fly away, a sparrow. “Please, don’t be like this. Please, I can’t stand it.” There are actual tears in his eyes.
“I will be fine,” I say, reading off a card in my mind. “Just a little depressed. I will be fine. Just leave me alone. I will be fine.”
In nine hours it will be time to leave for the airport. I’m afraid I won’t be able to sleep and will have to lie awake through those nine hours. I arrange myself in bed like a corpse, propped up on pillows in my white nightie. Larry is still up; the late movie flickers silver in the living room.
The three teenage boys have gotten into my house anyway. I locked the door in their grinning faces but I left a side door open–alas, that vulnerable side door! I’m naked, I keep pulling a sheet around me. The boys are lying on my couch, eating my food. One has a sly, cruel smile, full of sharp, jumbled teeth, like my French teacher’s.
I threaten to call the police. They laugh. I dial the police number again and again, then I realize the phone is dead. I run out of the house. I’m running fast, it feels good. I clutch my sheet around me and knock at the door of a neat brick house.
A sedate cocktail party is going on. A man allows me to use the telephone. I dial the police again and again, with great, slow, underwater effort, but all I can get are New York numbers. Useless. I run on.
At the bottom of the hill I see a house. A woman answers the door. I have never seen her before, but I think she is my grandmother. Not my real-life grandmother but another one, who has been waiting for me all these years. I can’t tell if she knows who I am. Adjusting my sheet, I ask to use the telephone. I try to convince myself that I remember her from my childhood. She is quite mad, wears 1890s clothes, her gray hair frizzes around her head, her round, lipsticked mouth hangs open.
I have never seen this house, but I try to recall it. The entrance is sunken, with a fireplace. Then two steps up to an elegant living room, crowded with antique furniture. A half-wall with Victorian pillars separates this living room from the dining room, which Grandmother uses as an office. She sits at her desk there now, discreetly, so as not to overhear my telephone conversation.
The rooms have peculiar folding doors whose edges interlock like fingers. This is a lovely house, I tell her.
I dial the telephone. It is very old, like everything in the house; some of the numbers are rubbed off, so it’s hard to dial accurately.
The police are far away, on Roosevelt Road. They are not concerned about the boys who are invading my house. They tell me I should get some clothes on, straighten up, how dare I bother them? They ask my name. I hear my waking voice speak, clear and strong: Mildred Taylor.
My grandmother has been listening after all; when I speak my name she opens her arms and embraces me.
For a moment I enjoy the embrace of clean sheets and warm blankets and then I remember what today is and I get up and punch the alarm clock so it won’t ring. In the bathroom I remember I’m supposed to douche with that Isodine stuff, so I do. It’s a nasty brown color and smells like the worst kind of disinfectant, like nursing home hallways, like toilets in cancer wards. It’s strong, astringent, I feel my flesh shrivel up where it touches. It’s OK, I don’t plan on using it again anyway.
I sit by the window and drink coffee and look out at the clock in Saint Michael’s steeple, the one that has counted off the quarter hours of my weekend. The sun is beginning to burn away the morning fog, the guy upstairs is out in the vacant lot with his two Irish setters, waiting patiently while they select just the right place to squat. I would rather do anything else in the world than go through with this. Oh, Saint Michael, give me a sign . . .
Saint Michael’s strikes seven; I go to wake Larry.
Larry drives me to the airport. I’m reeking of iodine and hungry already. How do they expect me to get through this without my breakfast?
“Are you sure you’ll be OK?” Larry asks me.
Once you start, you have to finish. “Sure, I’m fine.”
In the airplane, I have a horror of losing something–a button on my sweater, my money, my credit cards, the instructions, my airplane ticket, the pictures of my children. I pat my pockets, rummage through my purse, taking inventory. I look into a little hand mirror: there I am. Then I check everything again, and then again, and then I realize I am making a spectacle of myself so I close everything up and look out the window. We are over a landscape of lakes and fields; I think it’s Ohio.
A man in a blue station wagon is waiting at the United arrival gate. Three women in the car already. He drives us on the expressway to New York. There it is, the famous skyline. I try to enjoy the view, but I might as well be in Pittsburgh. I wonder about the guy driving the car. What kind of job is it, driving women from the airport to get abortions? How much does he get paid? Is there any future in it?
He lets us off in front of a brownstone with one of those long canopies that goes out to the street. There’s an old black man there, dressed as a doorman. “Here’s the ten o’clock bunch,” the driver says. The doorman takes us into the building and into a waiting room that looks like Sherlock Holmes’s study, all polished dark wood and rugs and armchairs. A woman gives us forms to fill out: name, age, what kind of birth control are you using, do you have $200 cash with you? and makes us sign a form that says we won’t sue them for anything, including pain or suffering.
There are seven women in the ten o’clock bunch. Two have their boyfriends with them; they must be locals. One is a dumpy blond woman in a puff-sleeved, purple and yellow dress, with her hair piled messily on top of her head. She looks deranged or retarded, maybe because she’s slightly cross-eyed. She speaks no English and another woman is translating for her. Polish, I decide. The other three women are from Chicago; I recognize the teenager with the Love patch on her jeans. The receptionist comes around and takes our filled-out forms and our money and gives us receipts, and we go up to the third floor in an elevator.
In the clinic, I put on my shield of invisibility and do as I am told. Over here, let this fellow give you a shot. Now, give this lady some of your urine. Now sit here, now stand over there. None of the staff look like real medical people. The nurses are just women in white dresses. You can tell because they aren’t wearing nurse caps, and because of their shoes. Real nurses have expensive white clinic shoes. These wear cheap white shoes, like a waitress wears. A temporary job.
The lab man looks particularly suspect. He has on a short white lab coat and regular street pants. He’s too hairy to be a real lab technician: hair on his arms and bushing up out of the neck of his lab coat and a heavy blue beard. He looks like those shows on TV where a key witness is in the hospital and one of the criminals knocks out the real lab man and dresses up in his clothes so he can sneak in and give the witness a shot of poison. But who am I to question? They are licensed by the city of New York. He asks for my vein and I give it to him.
“Now I’m going to counsel you.” A woman in a pink plisse uniform has arranged the seven of us in a circle in a tiny, wood-paneled room. She tells us the New York law says you can’t just abort a woman, you have to counsel her first. Apparently nobody said you have to do it one at a time.
She hauls out the pink plastic uterus and we look at it while she demonstrates again what is going to happen to us. The Planned Parenthood lady said it was pretty bad. This one is telling us it will “sting,” “pinch,” “cramp,” “give you some discomfort.” I’ve heard those words before. In the dentist’s chair. In the labor room: “Now, dear, you tell us right away if you feel any discomfort.”
Then the pink plisse lady hands around little white pills for us to take. “This will numb your body from the waist down,” she says. I have some knowledge of pharmacology and I am pretty sure there is no little white pill that will numb your body from the waist down, or at all. But we all swallow the pills. The dizzy girl’s interpreter is still with her, repeating all of this in Polish.
Waiting for my turn. I’m after the girl with the Love patch and before the Polish girl. They’ve taken her interpreter away from her. In my notebook I write: The Polish girl is frightened, poor dreamy mad thing. She can’t understand what they’re going to do to her. The words wobble all over the page. I put the notebook away. I’ve just gone to the bathroom and I’m trying to decide if I have time to go again and not lose my turn. A man in a soiled white coat with a rag tied around his head and high slush boots clumps through the waiting room, carrying a bucket and mop. One of the women is reading a book, The Power of Love. She’s about three-quarters of the way through it. The Muzak intrudes with a thousand violins: “All you need is love, love, love is all you need . . . ”
I definitely have to go again.
A woman comes out of the hall to my left. She’s wearing a clinging silver-gray pantsuit, makeup, Vidal Sassoon haircut. When I caught sight of her a half hour earlier I felt dowdy, midwestern. She’s waiting for an elevator. Her face looks blurry. An Oriental nurse is looking up at her, telling her something. Miss New York nods, sways on her platform sandals, taps the top of a pill bottle with one long, polished fingernail. Her pantsuit is too clingy now; the outline of a hospital-size Kotex spoils the line between her perfect legs.
What are they doing in there? I get up and hurry to the bathroom. Where is all the liquid coming from? My whole body feels numb. Maybe they weren’t lying about the pill. There I am in the mirror, same old me, a little pale. Are you really going through with this? I guess so. You can still cut out. Can I?
When I come out, they are calling my number.
It looks like Dr. S.’s examining room: a stirrup table at one side, lights, a sink, and trays of instruments. A tiny black nurse tells me to take off my jeans and panties. Then she helps me up on the table and puts my feet in the stirrups.
“Could I have a drape, please?”
“No, honey, you don’t need one.”
The doctor comes in. He’s a small man in surgical greens, a green cap and a green mask. All I can see are his glasses. A white nurse comes in with him, a big one. She says, “This is Dr. Mumphrg who will be doing the procedure.”
“Now, whatever you do, you must not move,” says the black nurse.
I am determined to be a good, brave patient. “Doctor, ” I say, “you’ll notice that I have an IUD in place . . . ”
The doctor had a set of dilating tubes, each one bigger than the last, and he was in a hurry. He thrust them, one by one, inside me, like changing spark plugs in a car.
I am not a coward about pain. I stepped on a nail once that came up through the top of my foot. Once I walked two blocks on a cracked ankle. I have borne three children. I have never felt such pain as I felt on that table.
It was a little like labor pains. Nobody wants to hear about labor pains. Women who have given birth already know what they feel like, and men don’t want to know. Labor pains feel like someone has grabbed hold of something important in your belly and is squeezing hard, harder, and you’re not sure whether he will let go or squeeze tighter. This felt like labor pains, but like eight hours of labor pains distilled down to five minutes, and no time to stop and rest and breathe in between times.
I knew they had been lying to me, but I couldn’t believe how much.
I grabbed the little nurse’s hand–it was the size of a child’s, with little toothpick bones–and heard it crack. “Something’s wrong,” I said. “It hurts too much.”
“Shush now,” she said. “Just a few more seconds. He’s going to turn on the machine.”
I heard the machine, a small humming vacuum cleaner sound, and then the pain got worse. It was impossible for it to get worse, but it did. I sweated through my blouse, tears ran down my face and into my ears. My whole body screamed to wrench away, kick, heave, flee, but I stayed absolutely still, hips glued to the table.
While this masked man was grinding out my insides, and I was letting him, things became very clear. So this is the way it is. All those years of college, sitting around discussing Flaubert, work, marriage, keeping house, raising children, shopping for clothes, putting on makeup, my balanced checkbook, my alphabetized books on the shelf–I had only been fooling myself. Here is where the truth lay, here on a table, astonished with pain, holding perfectly still.
I counted backward from 50 three times and at last it was over. I heard some metal clank into a pan, and the doctor scooted out of the room. The two nurses took my feet out of the stirrups and pulled a shelf out at the end of the table and laid my legs on it. The big nurse removed a five-gallon glass jug from the machine and carried it across the room; it was two-thirds full of blood. No, it couldn’t be all blood; I didn’t have that much blood. It must be blood and water mixed. She dumped it down the sink, into the New York sewers.
I lay as they left me, my arms and legs had turned to water. The black nurse showed up with a Kotex and a belt and got them on me and got my clothes back on. I wasn’t going to move, the hell with it, let them carry me. I was ready to let go and black out, but I realized in some corner of my mind that it wasn’t over yet. I still had to get out of there, and get to the airport, and onto a plane, and all the way back to Chicago, and through the air terminal, and then onto an airport bus to the Loop, and then a bus or taxi home, and up three flights of stairs, and there was no one to help me.
Down the hall to the recovery room, leaning on a green tiled wall and on the little nurse. She holds a vial of smelling salts under my nose. I’m drunk, but determined to walk a straight line and not make a fool of myself. My eyes want to close, as if I’d been driving all night. A ringing in my ears, a grainy darkness waiting just out of my line of vision. I lean all my weight on the little nurse. “I hope they pay you well,” I say.
Flat on my back, legs arranged in a narrow V by the little nurse, arms at my sides, palms up. I think the pad between my legs is off center; I’m bleeding through my jeans. It’s only a matter of reaching down and giving it a tug, but my arms lie there like two dead fish.
Two women dressed as nurses are gossiping in the hall outside the room:
“What about those girls in six?”
“They won’t leave, say they feel dizzy.”
“They’ve been there an hour already, get them up. We need the beds.”
I close my eyes, but they open again. If I pass out, I’ll never get out of here.
The little black nurse brings the Polish girl in. She has a glazed smile on her face. She lies with her face turned toward me; her hair is falling down. I smile at her, encouragingly: Yes, I know, you’re alone and it must be frightening. Her eyes close, filming over first the way a chicken’s do when it is dying.
I hear someone vomiting. The Polish girl in the bathroom, retching. I’m afraid she’ll faint and bump her head. I sit up and call the nurses in the hall. Nothing. I swing my legs out of bed, one at a time, and carefully stand up, and walk out into the hall. “There’s a girl throwing up in the bathroom,” I say.
The two women are leaning against the wall, smoking. They look at me and don’t answer.
I go back and sit down on the bed. So that’s the way it is.
Sitting up, I can feel blood gushing, and as soon as the Polish girl is finished throwing up, I go in there to change the pad. It’s saturated already. Blood is flowing out of me like a faucet. I’m still in a lot of pain. Can this be right? It must be all right. Anyway, who am I going to ask, those two out in the hall?
There I am in the mirror. I’m surprised to see I look very much the same. More solemn. A new line across the forehead. And the eyes are changed: stunned, too much white showing. I’m afraid to look into them.
There’s a shuttle car to the airport in 15 minutes and I am determined to be on it. I gauge my remaining strength: do I have enough left to get home? Do I have a choice? I search my bag again, checking: money, plane ticket, house keys. It seems important not to leave anything behind.
They give me some pills, and the hairy lab technician gives me a final shot of something. I don’t feel the needle. “Well,” he says. “You’re still smiling.”
The pain does not let up. It goes with me into the airport, through the boarding gate, into my seat, up into the sky. A stewardess tries to interest me in lunch, but I am engrossed in what is going on in my belly. The giant hand has clamped down again and does not let up. I am beginning to accept it as a permanent part of my life. It walks with me through O’Hare. My feet barely touch the floor; I am floating, as in a dream. I will learn to live with the pain, I decide. It is my penance, it is the price of being alive.
A tap on my shoulder: “Miss?” An immaculate middle-aged woman wearing white gloves points at the floor, then down the hall. I am leaving a trail of blood.
“Thank you,” I say.
“Hello? Don’t put me on hold. Let me talk to Dr. S. Right away.”
Dr. S., rushed, irritated: “Yes, what is it?”
“Please, I think I need help, I’m bleeding to death, I’m at the airport, OK, hello?”
He does not ask me to explain. “Take a cab directly to the hospital,” he says. “I’ll meet you there. You’ll be fine.”
Yes, I will be fine, fine, fine, let them drain out all my blood, I’ll run on empty, I am immortal, I can fly, I feel the immense strength and fragility of my body, my murderous womb, I hold it in my two hands like a glowing crystal ball–I see the past and the future . . .
I take the first cab in line. The driver is a huge black man with a do-rag and mirror sunglasses. I memorize his name and cab license number, just in case.
“Michael Reese,” I say; he clicks down the flag. There is a subway roaring in my ears, a black fog drifting in. I concentrate on the pain, it keeps me conscious. Sometimes it lets up long enough to give me hope, then it bears down again, harder than before. I have bled through my jeans, I fold my sweater and sit on that. My hands are brown with blood, and my face, where I have pushed my hair back. Handprints appear on my white silk blouse, and on the window . . .
“I’m sorry, excuse me, Mr. Washington, sir?” I say. “But, I’m afraid, I think I’m getting blood on your back seat.”
He pats the back of the seat: a diamond ring, long polished nails like a woman’s. “Never mind, child,” he says. “I seen blood before.”
Dr. S. meets me at the door of the emergency room, pays the cab driver, gives my purse and my dripping sweater to a nurse, a real one this time. The nurses could have undressed me by themselves, could have started the IVs, but he was there, there, there, oh, he could give lessons, that man. Then I am on an operating table. “We have to go in again and see what’s wrong,” he says. “We need your consent.”
My consent? Yes, take it, take it all, throw it away with the rest, flush it down the drain.
“Millie? Your consent.”
“Yes, OK, yes, consent, my, yes . . .”
Two masked women are buckling a wide belt across my chest.
“Now we’re going to give you some Pentothal and put you out. Just relax, you’ll be fine.”
Yes, fine fine fine just fine. The roaring in my ears. The fire in my belly. I cherished the pain like a cancerous breast. It was awful, but it was mine, fine, mine.
“Millie.” Dr. S. leaning over me. Green hospital mask and cap, the same color as New York. “Millie. You’re fighting the anesthetic. You have to let go, let go. You’ll get too much, you’ll go too deep. Just relax, let go.”
“Oh God I’m so afraid.”
He takes my hand, he takes both my hands. “I know,” he says. “I know. It’s all right.”
“Don’t let me die.”
Holding my hands like a lover: “I won’t let you die.”
Holding his hands, I let go of the pain, the roaring closes in, I step off the edge into the dark.
Blood is dripping into my vein. I am all right. The pain, the roaring, the dark fog, all gone. Nurses in hospital green move softly from bed to bed, tending unconscious bodies. Before I am entirely sure who I am, Dr. S. is at my side.
“How are ya?”
“They left the coil in you,” he says.
“The coil, the IUD. They were supposed to take it out, but they jammed it up inside your uterus. Some nice lacerations. Must have hurt like hell.”
I close my eyes.
“Larry Kowalsky is here,” he says.
I open my eyes.
“He’s in our file as your next of kin.”
You called my next of kin.
“I can send him away if you don’t want to see him.”
“No, just give me a few minutes.”
He motions to one of the nurses: “Give Millie here a sponge bath, would you? Her young man’s coming in to see her.”
A fat, grandmotherly nurse, her gray hair frizzing out from under her cap, brings a basin of warm water. “Now Missy, you just relax and let me do for you,” she says. She picks up my arm; I let her.
All my secrets are known. It will be published in tomorrow’s Tribune: “Mildred Taylor has abortion, brushes elbows with death, starts life anew.” I say good-bye to the fetus, floating down the New York sewer; I did not have the chance before. With someone else’s blood flowing in my veins, I thank everyone, forgive, bless, even my next of kin, even myself.
The nurse sponges my face. I close my eyes. “Thank you,” I say. “That feels wonderful.”
Mildred Taylor is a pseudonym. The names of the doctor and the boyfriend have also been changed.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Richard Laurent.