In this story, two young women are pregnant at the same time by the same man. One of the women is a musician and a writer and a feminist, and she sports tattoos and body piercings before they are cool. The other woman is an outdoorsy graduate student and a feminist, and she wears J. Crew sweater sets and Mary Janes. The musician calls the graduate student “Miss Goody Two Shoes.” The graduate student calls the musician “The Slut.” I am one of these women, or was, and now I realize that it doesn’t matter which one. What matters is that the man is let entirely off the hook by two young women who call themselves feminists.
Though both the musician and the graduate student could tell you stories, I can tell only mine: I was twenty-four, and my father had recently died. Daddy worked hard at being a writer and a drinker, but was successful only in the drinking. He shouted at me when he drank, but he was Daddy, so I loved him. I was just starting to be adult enough to reconcile the complicated feelings I had for my father, but he died before I realized his drinking did not mean he didn’t love me. He died feeling like he had failed me. And that has always made me feel that, really, it was I who failed him.
I met the man, an artist and a writer and a drinker, three months after my father’s death. The way things happened to that twenty-four-year-old now seems very clear. For six months, I drew with him at the community art center and swapped stories and poems with him. He was almost ten years older. I drank with him, and I slept with him when he wanted me to. Frequently, we shouted at each other. I broke up with him when he told me to fuck off or asked me things like “Who do you think you are? Do you think you’re special?” I wasn’t sure who I was, entirely, but even though I had grown accustomed to my father’s shouting, I had a small idea that perhaps I was someone who didn’t deserve to be yelled at. But then again, I wasn’t sure about anything, so we’d soon get back together and start the whole mess of a thing again.
My best friend referred to the artist/writer/drinker as my on-again-off-again. One night that November, my on-again-off-again came to my house. Technically, we were off and not on, but my housemates were on a road trip, so I would not have to feel embarrassed over Cheerios the next day, admitting that I had let my on-again-off-again back into my bed. So I let him in, and I let him fuck me. I let him fuck me with no condom, only spermicide, even though I had an idea that he was also fucking another girl and even though he had once called me by her name right after sex and then said he meant his cat, who conveniently shared her name.
You know what’s coming next. In retrospect, nothing is a surprise.
The word mistake comes from the fourteenth-century Old Norse mistaka, meaning “to wrongly take,” as in “to take the wrong course of action.” More recently, the word mistake has also come to mean, specifically, “unintended pregnancy.”
I went to the clinic, and after a simple urine test, they called and confirmed it. I listened to the nurse telling me to avoid caffeine and alcohol. I put the phone back on the hook, then picked it back up, called my friends Judy and Ben, and asked if they wanted to drink beers with me at the beach. We sat at Montaña de Oro, watching the sunset with giant cans of Foster’s. I didn’t tell them why I had called. Judy and Ben, my embryo and I—we watched the sun sink below the Pacific and talked of other things, things I do not remember. I came home, now full of forty ounces of Foster’s courage, picked up the phone, and called my on-again-off again. He wasn’t home, was maybe out somewhere with his other girl. I knew he would not call me back unless I said this:
“On-again-off-again, it’s me. Suzanne. Please call me back. I’m— I’m pregnant.”
He called back the next day, and when I answered the phone, he said, “Hey, Mama.” He said that as if it was cute or funny or even remotely true. Yet, twenty-four-year-old me thought I needed him. In truth, I thought it worse to be pregnant by someone who wasn’t my boyfriend, even if I would never tell anyone about it. What a slut! I hated how that word sounded. How it felt. Language turned out to be everything. I went back to my on-again-off-again because of the word slut—a repulsive word, a word I hated but nevertheless applied to myself.
My on-again-off-again and I didn’t ever talk about it, but somehow, there was a nonverbal agreement that we’d be back on again, at least for a while. And so we were.
One afternoon a few days after I’d found out, we lay on the futon in his loft, and I watched dust float in and out of the yellow slant of winter light. I counted the dead moths on the windowsill. My on-again-off-again was tired, maybe from too much Bushmills, and he snored into my hair. His hand rested on my stomach, and I thought, “We are three, not two. I am two, not one.” I can’t remember whether I had already made the appointment, but I had made up my mind. Even though I pictured a floating, fish-like life inside of me, I needed to protect my future, one I had only begun to allow myself to imagine, in a hazy dream-world sort of way.
I wanted to know what my on-again-off-again was thinking. Maybe he, too, did math equations in his head—three not two, forty-two and fifty-one at a high school graduation. I didn’t ask. At one point, he said, “The child would be good looking, artistic, and smart.” This made things worse for me because it was likely true. I didn’t ask my on-again-off-again if he wanted to keep the baby, and he never said anything. Another unspoken agreement: it was my decision to make, and for that, I am still grateful. But that doesn’t mean it was easy.
Here is what I wrote in my journal on December 3, 1994: I am so upset. I miss Daddy. Is life really this hard? I am unloved. I am killing my baby. I am two. I sit here as two. I hurt and I cry and this page is getting blurry. Enough of this. Enough.
At the time, I did not know that his other girl was pregnant, too. Would that have made me feel worse? Or better? I have no way of knowing.
For many years, I tried very hard not to think about all of this, but as I bring it back to the surface of my skin, I remember something else, a thing I didn’t dwell on at the time, but now I see that it connects everything: the other woman had recently lost her mother. When a parent dies, no matter what age you are, there’s that I’m next feeling. When you are young, and maybe even when you are old, that realization brings with it a recklessness, a disregard for the self. For me, that meant searching out a chaos, as if that was the only thing which could fill my chest’s black hole. Of course, it only made matters worse, widened the gap. There was no way to fix the problem—my father was dead, and there was nothing I could do to bring him back.
The first time I met my on-again-off-again, he made a comment about the leather attaché case I was carrying, and I told him it had been my father’s. Then I added, “My father just died.”
“When?” he asked.
“This last March?”
“I’m really sorry.”
“It’s okay,” I said. “We’re all going to die someday.”
“Wow,” he said.
“It’s just that. . . . That’s very existential.”
“I guess,” I said, not really sure what that had to do with my father’s death or me, but I was reading Camus and Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, so I took it as a compliment. As an understanding of something—of what, I’m still not sure.
In those months after my father died, I couldn’t seem to stop crying. Every time I waited at a traffic light with three distraction-free seconds on my hands, I wept uncontrollably. I didn’t want to cry all the time, so I tried not to think about my father or myself; the casual affair with my on-again-off-again was a good distraction.
After I found out I was pregnant, I tried to run it away. I woke up in the morning, downing coffee and skipping breakfast, and I ran more miles than ever before. Three, seven, thirteen miles. I jogged down to the beach, splashing through the foaming sea; I struggled up sand dunes and back down them; I let the rain snap at my face like rubber bands; and I shivered in the salty fog. I didn’t see this as punishment at the time. I just hoped to come home, see a petal of blood on my panties. Something in me felt broken, unfixable.
Mistaka, in the Old Norse, also means “to miscarry.” But no matter how many miles I logged, I couldn’t run the pregnancy away.
My forty-two-year-old self would not call a fetus “a baby” and would never refer to terminating a pregnancy as “killing a baby.” But at twenty-four, and pregnant, I did. I wanted to really feel it. I felt it was important to know exactly what I was about to do and still make the decision I needed to make, as if looking at one kind of horror straight on would diminish the other. I was hurting already and wanted to hurt more, as if this newer hurt could rub out the old, deep hurt.
The night before the abortion, I agreed to go to a holiday party with my on-again-off-again. In truth, I knew that if I used the party as a test, passive-aggressively hoping he would stay home with me rather than attend the party, he would fail, and that would mean I had failed, too. And I had already failed enough.
The hosts were two lovely gay men, Raphael and Simon. They had created a Barbie nativity scene for the party, featuring a black Barbie, Cher Barbie, and Aladdin—“A much sexier alternative to that eunuch Ken,” Raphael declared. “How about a Bellini, sweetheart?”
Vanessa, a pug in a sequined gold tutu, mingled with the party guests, wheezing and barking every time the doorbell chimed. Raphael showed me a picture of himself in drag. He said, “But don’t think I want to be a woman, sweetheart. I like my dick so much that what I want is another one. Another Bellini?” Normally, a tutu-clad pug named Vanessa, a drag queen glamour shot, a multicultural Barbie nativity scene, and free-flowing champagne would cheer me up considerably. Instead, I sucked down one drink after another and thought, I’m pregnant, I’m pregnant, I’m pregnant. I spent most of the evening with Vanessa, wondering if anyone could tell that the drunk girl petting the pug was pregnant.
If this were fiction, I could not tell you that on the day of the abortion, the clouds rumbled in, pleat after gray pleat, the sky coughed with thunder, dead leaves circled in wind funnels. Or that lightning cracked open the sky. It would be too obvious, heavy-handed. But it is true; the rain indeed fell in sheets. Lightning divided a gray sky. I told my on-again-off-again that I wanted to walk to the clinic, three blocks from his house.
“It will take three minutes,” I said. “We’ll bring an umbrella. I’ll be fine!”
We walked along the rain-soaked pavement, the wind shaking waxy magnolia leaves onto the sidewalks. The gray-green clouds climbed the sky. The passing motorists wondered, perhaps, what those two were doing out there on such a day, huddled under a shared umbrella in the pouring rain.
We arrived at the Planned Parenthood clinic. I told my on-again-off-again he did not have to come into the abortion room with me. “It’s bad enough I have to be there,” I said, hoping to lift the mood—another attempt to let him off, to protect him. I didn’t know that within a few weeks, he would sit in that same waiting room again, maybe even be there with her for the procedure. I didn’t want to know, and I never asked.
He would tell me that it wasn’t his. The other boyfriend had allegedly gotten her pregnant, and my on-again-off-again was merely being a good friend. Though the supportive-friend role didn’t really fit the character of my on-again-off-again, I chose to believe him. Why? Maybe because I wanted to deny that I was one of the points on an ugly triangle. Even now, my mind drifts to the thought: Maybe he really was telling the truth? I cannot help but carry the sensibilities of that twenty-four-year old girl inside my middle-aged self, even though, deep down, we both know better.
At the clinic, I peed in a cup to make sure. I hoped it had gone away, but it hadn’t, despite the many miles I had run, the many cups of coffee and glasses of wine I had downed. I filled out the paperwork, lying about the date of my last period. I wasn’t technically far enough along for the procedure, but I figured a couple of days wouldn’t make a difference. Better to do it early, I thought. The earlier, the better—the smallest version possible of the not-yet-living.
I took the little blue Valium with water from a Dixie cup and then waited next to a blonde teenager, who wore pigtails and was crying, and I remember feeling angry with her, wanting to turn to her and spit out my mother’s favorite three-word phrase: Get over it. I see now that my anger was not for her but for me, and I have wished I could reach back through the years and say “I’m sorry” to us both. The only way to do this, I now see, is in the telling.
Above me, there was a poster of Tom Selleck, mustachioed and sun-tanned, leaning out of a red Ferrari. Another poster featured a basket of kittens, a ball of yarn. Some inspirational script looped across the poster, but I can’t remember what—something about friendship. Not only have I not spoken about this day, I have never written about it except once, years later, obliquely in a poem. Even in the journal I obsessively kept then, I mentioned the abortion only once. Too private, I must have thought, even for the page.
But still, I remember the posters and the rain and the walk to the clinic. And the doctor, who was built like a fireplug and wore her brown hair cropped short. I remember the thin membrane of tissue between me and the metal table. And the nurse who held my hand, told me everything would be all right. She was right; it was. And it wasn’t. Lightning zippered across the sky, and the lights flickered off and on. And so did the abortion machine. Over the starting and stopping vacuum noise, the doctor said, “Are you sure about the date of your last period? I can’t find it. It’s too small.” And I thought, Find it, find it, find it. I prayed to the electricity spirits, Stay on, stay on, stay on. Then the lights would flicker, and the humming-sucking sound would stop.
Start. Stop. Start.
“I got it. But it’s so small, I’m not sure I got it all,” the doctor finally said. I squeezed on the nurse’s hand, and I thank the world for providing people like her to people like twenty-four-year-old me.
Then the face of my on-again-off-again appeared over me like some sort of long-haired, bespectacled god. The Valium had finally kicked in, and I wondered, “Who let him in?” though, according to the nurse, I had asked for him.
“How are you doing?” he asked.
“Well?” It came out more like a question than an answer.
“Was it terrible?” he whispered.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“Me, too. I’m fine. Don’t worry.”
We walked home in the rain. The fallen magnolia leaves were purplish-green splotches, like wet bruises on the sidewalk. The streets, rainbow-puddled, smelled of water and oil. We didn’t tell the nurses about the walking. Surely, they would not have allowed it. But I was fine! I asked my on-again-off-again to drive me to the post office. I wanted to check my post office box for poetry rejections. For some reason, he complied. I don’t remember the ride to the post office, the tires on wet pavement, the rain-filled gutters, the steam rising from the pavement. I don’t remember hitting the shiny post office floor. I remember only the crowd around me, and begging my on-again-off-again to get me out of there before the paramedics, who were already on their way, arrived. He managed that, against all of the onlookers’ good advice.
I wasn’t about to get pregnant again. I didn’t have health insurance back then, but because of the abortion, I had learned about Planned Parenthood and was able to get a prescription for the pill. I walked through a group of people carrying posters decorated with dead babies. I remember thinking about the irony of this because they had not been at the clinic on that rainy day in December. I remember wanting to say something to them, to tell them I’d already killed my baby, but then I realized that their fun is in getting people riled up, so I did my best to ignore them. The pills made me crazy and fat and pock-faced, but I never got pregnant again.
My on-again-off-again kept fucking the other girl, and by March, I could no longer delude myself, so I confronted him. That’s when I learned she had had an abortion at the same clinic, the same month. And then I did a very bad thing: I called her names. I did not think that her pain might have matched my own, that her mistakes were my own. That we were not only part of the same story, we were the same story. Looking back, I see that we should have been on one side, with on-again-off-again on the other. We were more similar than different in the things that mattered. We might have consoled each other; none of my friends had lost parents yet, and no one wanted to talk about death. But we were divided by words, and by the self-hatred we’d learned to adopt as girls, as young women. Language and thought are inextricably bound. If we allow our language to disintegrate, so goes our thinking. We are reduced to sound bites and stereotypes, to The Slut and Miss Goody Two Shoes.
I finally wrote my on-again-off-again a letter, in which I spun all the meanness from my scarred body into words, and sent it to him, finally ending things for good. I hurt him deeply, and for years, I felt guilt over that because, in many ways, he, too, was a broken person. Now, the guilt is for the way I regarded both my twenty-four-year-old self and his other woman.
According to my doctor, my chance of getting pregnant now is less than one percent. Just being forty-two-year-old me is more reliable than the pill. “Never been pregnant,” I’ve told every gynecologist I’ve gone to in the past twenty years, as if saying it makes it so. And I suppose saying that has helped me to forget, but more than forgetting, what I’ve really done is to allow my shame to cultivate callousness. A fourteenth-century Scandinavian source reports that mistake means “to misinterpret,” and for all these years, I have done just that. For years, I chose to believe that the other woman’s abortion had nothing to do with me, which has made me a poor excuse for a feminist.
I don’t regret the decision I made, though I do regret having had to make it in the first place. I also regret my two-decade subscription to guilt. Sometimes I catch myself doing the math: kindergarten, sweet sixteen, graduation—all the usual markers for the almost person. It has taken me a long time, but I’ve realized I can live with this sort of longing while letting go of the shame.
Language turned out to be everything. In this story, two young women are pregnant at the same time by the same man. In this story, neither woman is to blame.