By the end of the first trimester, the brain is fully
formed and the vocal chords are in place. The fetus
may cry, silently.
The terminal remains a blur of scurrying feet and
braying voices. In sandals and tangerine miniskirt, a
hasty slash of red across your lips, you surge forward
with the crowd. The overhead signs greet you in many
languages, arrows pointing in opposite directions. In
this country, you are the foreigner. Few born here will
have your pale, freckled skin. You’re 28 years old and
in graduate school, on Easter break in 1970. You have
a five-year-old son from your first marriage; he’s
visiting his father during the days that you’ll be away.
Between your educational stipend and child support,
you barely manage to pay bills. How could you afford
to raise another man’s child?
You can’t imagine yourself as a woman with two men
picking up children on weekends. One might visit and
the other not. Your first husband could be trusted to
bring your child home with no bruises, but the second
one—you’d worry about him. He could say it was an
accident, but if your baby suffers or dies, what
difference does that make? How would you keep your
baby safe if the court awarded visitation? You’d never
be able to sleep at night. It’s not only about exercising
the right to control your body or make your life easier.
There are three lives to consider, two hearts beating
inside your body. Would it be fair to your son? What
could you offer another child? Just how far can you
stretch your energy and resources?
The fetal heart beat ranges from 110 to 160 beats per
minute. Initially all blood cells are produced in the
liver and the spleen.
The cab is red, but later you’ll think it might have been
green or black. The driver’s shirt is wrinkled and his
teeth are yellow. He swipes sweat from his forehead
with his sleeve. He’s not young, not old, his hair wavy,
or was it straight? His skin was dark, maybe light, the
face of a man fading from memory even as you
converse. He speaks some English and knows where to
find the American Reforma Hotel. You need to be there.
You’re racing down the thoroughfare traveling straight
into the heart of Mexico City. There are houses and
cars and people on the streets but you don’t see them.
Everything passes by in a blur. Nothing seems familiar.
This place isn’t where you want to be. Even your
thoughts seem to be coming from somewhere else.
The cab driver watches you in his rear view mirror. Who
is that woman he sees? It can’t be you.
Nurses meet patients in constantly shifting
apartments. They clean up the blood and move to
A week earlier in the pastoral office at the Unitarian
Clergy Counseling Service the Reverend asked if you
had the money to see a doctor. His lips tightened after
you shook your head. He pushed his chair back from
his rosewood desk. Wispy white hair fluttered over his
brow. You squirmed in a high-backed chair. Your foot
tapped on the pegged wood floor.
He looked at his watch. “Well, there are the Jane
clinics. No doctors—but the women have been trained
“Cheaper?” you asked.
His baritone voice deepened as he leaned forward. “If
there are complications…it could get messy.”
You blurted out: “I want a doctor.”
He gave you an address in Mexico City. A credit card
would take care of the plane fare and the hotel, but
you’d need to borrow the money to pay for the
procedure. Only one person might have given you the
money. You’d never asked anyone for that much money.
By the end of the third month the arteries and
coronary vessels of the heart are functioning. Blood is
circulating throughout both bodies.
That night you phoned Lloyd, your grandfather by
marriage not blood, but the only grandfather you’ve
ever known and loved. Your Nana had died of a stroke
two years earlier. Now Lloyd lived alone. He’d refused
to abandon his poker-playing pals to move near family.
Since the days of Bugsy Siegel, with whom he’d shared
a fancy for Italian made suits, Lloyd had dealt cards at
the Golden Nugget. During your childhood summers in
Vegas, you’d watched him tug a red garter up his
starched white sleeve as he dressed for his evening
shift. Before he headed off to the casino, he’d hugged
you and tucked you into bed. You’d fallen asleep with
his scent of Old Spice clinging to your flannel gown.
You’d never driven from Los Angeles to Vegas with
only a day’s notice. Lloyd would have known that you
were in trouble. On your way into town, you stopped
by Arby’s and picked up his favorite roast beef
That evening the two of you sat on the sofa, leaning
back into the purple cushions. In his seventies, with
his dimples hidden inside fleshy crevices and his once
dark, wavy hair now ghostlike and thinning, Lloyd
scarcely resembled the idol you’d remembered. You
visualized yourself as a pig-tailed, squealing girl
lunging from the concrete walkway of the municipal
pool and into his sturdy arms. Now you held his feeble
hands and gazed out the sliding glass door at the lush
backyard oasis in the middle of the Mojave Desert. He
squeezed your fingers. “What’s wrong, pumpkin?”
You’d wanted to preserve the sweetness of your
childhood but had no options. Said the words quickly to
get it over with: “I need $500.”
He jerked his hand away.
“I’m pregnant,” you mumbled, your marble pedestal
crumbling—once a princess, now a foolish woman. The
illusion of innocence now destroyed: the pleasure of
childhood memories tainted. When he took a deep
breath, you heard him wheezing. “What does Alan
want?” he asked.
Lloyd had been present at your first wedding—the one
with the seven bridesmaids dressed in the colors of
the rainbow. He’d loaned you his white Cadillac and
saved you from having to rent a limousine. He’d never
met your second husband and seemed to have
forgotten that you’d married a second time, but you’d
only been with Chris for six months.
“It’s Chris, and I’m divorcing him. He’s a drunk.”
Lloyd shook his head and stared down at the shag
carpet. “Just like your father,” he said. He leaned
forward and fumbled in his pocket for his wallet. Then
he counted out the bills, one by one, scraping his
thumb over the edges. You noticed his arms trembling
and worried that his Parkinson’s had progressed. As
you folded the money into your purse, you hoped this
wouldn’t be his final memory of you.
For a thousand years, the dominant view was that
abortion in the first trimester was acceptable. The
fetus was not a person.
Inside the lobby of the American Reforma Hotel, the
marble columns dwarf your body. Masks of the Aztec
gods protrude from the walls, their obsidian eyes
winking as if they’d anticipated your arrival. One of
them would be Coyoxautli, the Fertility Goddess, but
you don’t recognize her. A man in a white shirt and
reddish-brown jacket stands behind a chest-high
marble counter and glares as you walk toward him. Or
is it you, glowering at him? He has an angular chin, full
cupid lips, and wears a turquoise necklace. This is his
country, not yours. You imagine hearing those words.
He asks your name and flips through his drawer of
index cards to verify your reservation. “Overnight!” he
says after he finds it. His left eyelid twitches when he
slides the key for room 312 across the black marble
How many women traveling alone with overnight bags
have checked in before you that day, that week? Is it
only your imagination that people are watching you?
A porter approaches, his arms outstretched, the brass
buttons on his uniform glittering under the crystal
chandelier. You clutch your satchel close against your
body. Someone shrieks, “I’ll carry it.” It must have
been you. The porter jumps back and stares as if
you’ve traveled from another planet.
He’s a greasy-haired kid with a smirk on his face. Do
you care what he thinks?
You lean toward the counter and speak in a hushed
voice: “I’ll need a taxi at 7:00 in the morning and a
6:30 wake-up call.”
The desk clerk nods and waves his arm toward the
dining room. “Dinner at 6:00.” His silver bracelets
jangle. “Or would you prefer room service?”
“I won’t be eating.”
“Well, then.” His eyes narrow to slits.
“Follow me,” the porter says. Now, he’s snapping his
Your room is large and dark, the brocaded curtains
closed and the air musty. You set your bag at the end
of the king bed and turn your back, waiting for the
porter to leave. You want to be alone. He’s halfway
across the room toward the curtains when you yell out.
“Don’t open them.”
He pivots on the balls of his feet, walks back to the
door and holds out his palm. How could you forget?
Now you’re paying him extra to leave.
When he’s gone, the darkness envelops both your body
and your room. You’re scared and ashamed but have
made your decision. You think that you know yourself.
You’ll never be sorry. You won’t see it as a mistake.
Not even after your hair turns gray. By then, you’ll
have forgotten. You won’t be missing out. You have
plenty of years left.
Kinsey found that from 1/5th to 1/4th of all married
women had undergone an abortion. It wasn’t
considered to be murder.
The next morning you grope in your wallet for the
paper with the address of the clinic. Just as the panic
sets in you find it at the bottom of your satchel. You’re
relieved, but your heart continues to beat faster than
usual. When the cab driver looks at the paper, his
smile evaporates. He knows this part of town, but the
address…he’s not sure. Well, he’ll find it. He always
does. So he knows the routine. There’s nothing more
to say. It’s a twenty-minute ride to a suburb with a
narrow paved road flanked by dirt pathways. There are
no addresses on the rows of gray buildings all huddled
together, no business signs, no people on the street,
no faces in the windows.
“That one,” he says, and points to a building with
stairs spiraling down to a basement. You don’t ask him
how he knows. With a vocabulary of ten Spanish
words, you worry about being alone on the street. He
promises to wait until you’re down the steps and
inside the door.
His eyes scan the road, forward and back. You jump
from the car. Halfway down the stairs, you hear the
roar of his engine. When you turn around, there’s a
cloud of dust and fumes.
The door is open and you slip inside, walking through
an entry with a wooden bench and into a windowless
room. A bare light bulb dangles from the ceiling.
There’s another bench shoved up against a wall and a
small wooden desk in the middle of an otherwise
empty space. A woman with a red hibiscus tucked into
her dark braids sits behind the desk and shuffles
papers. She’s wearing a multi-colored skirt and a
yellow peasant blouse. She looks old enough to be
your mother and grimaces as you approach.
You give your name. Your eyes trace the cracks in the
terracotta tile floor. She finds the papers and asks to
see your identification. Her English is another version
of Spanish, but there’s no need for detailed
explanations. You understand. You’ll sign the waiver of
liability without reading it. After you nod, she slides a
pen and papers across the desk. “Dinero, por favor.”
You bend forward and scribble, then dig into your
wallet for hundred dollar bills. She separates them
carefully, nodding five times. Then she points to a door
next to the wooden bench. “Puesto en gown.”
Physicians agreed that some abortions were
necessary, but women were incompetent to make that
Ten years earlier, your fifteen-year-old sister had been
shuffled off to the Florence Crittenden Home. A week
after she gave birth, you stood behind her in the small
visiting room at the Children’s Home Society watching
her stroke tiny patches of fluffy, dark hair. She’d
named her daughter Teresa. You might have
considered that a perfect name for a child out alone in
the world who’d need a saint to protect her, but for
you the baby didn’t exist. When the social worker held
out her arms, your sister hadn’t been ready to
relinquish her infant until after your mother poked her
in the ribs. With her chest heaving, she bent forward
and scrawled her name on the legal papers. You
stepped closer to your mother and hoped your life
would go on as usual with your sister back home. If
you’d tried to comfort your sister, your mother would
have felt betrayed.
On the ride back home, you sat in the front seat. Your
mother drove with her chin high and her shoulders
erect. You knew what she was thinking. She’d told you
so many times. She regretted that it had to be this
way, but your sister was too young to raise a baby. It
hadn’t been easy, but Mother had saved the family
from a terrible disgrace. She didn’t want any more
screaming babies in her home. Her daughters had worn
her ragged. Her fingers, like talons, gripped the wheel
of the Ford station wagon. Her meticulously applied
pancake make-up had become coated with sweat.
Despite the clawing of fingernails on the back windows
and the weeping, not a word escaped your mother’s
ruby lips. Your sister disappeared into the bedroom
that summer. The bedsprings squeaked and the wood
frame thumped against the wall as she banged her
head on her pillow at all hours, day and night. Her twin
bed had been only three feet from yours but never
again would you live in the same worlds.
Protecting women from the dangers of abortion was
actually meant to control them and restrict them to
their traditional childbearing role.
A young woman sits on the wooden bench in the corner
of the basement clinic. You hadn’t noticed her before
or maybe you’d chosen not to. She looks about sixteen
but would need to be at least eighteen to sign the
waiver. Her eyes are swollen and red. Her tangled
brown hair bunches on her drooping shoulders. If she’d
worn make-up or combed her hair, she might be pretty,
but there’s no need for that here. You stop yourself
from asking her name or where she’s from. You don’t
want to be rude. There’d be nothing to chat about. No
words could make this day pleasant. Her fear would
only add to yours. You turn your head, silently
pleading that your life will be spared.
Within twenty minutes a dark, rotund man in a
business suit darts through the clinic door. He rushes
over to crush your hand into his burly fist. The band of
his diamond ring leaves marks on your skin. "Dr.
Sanchez. That’s my name," he says. You repeat his
name: "Dr. Sanchez." That’s all you’ll ever know about
him. It might not even be his name.
He’s obviously in a hurry but somehow manages to
appear patient and kind rather than short-tempered or
menacing. That’s how you’ve chosen to envision him.
With his heavy accent, you can’t be sure that you’ve
understood his words. Is he asking permission to
proceed or if you have any questions? Does he want to
know anything about your medical history or response
to anesthesia? You’re scared that something might go
terribly wrong but convince yourself to trust this man
whose real name you might or might not have heard.
You’ll say or do anything to place him in a beneficent
state of mind. He determines who lives and who dies.
Having emancipated yourself from two husbands,
you’ve struggled to become an independent woman.
Recently you’ve found kinship within the feminist
movement and have learned the difference between
being an assertive and an aggressive woman. Neither
attitude will please this doctor. Instinctively you know
that he prefers women who revere and obey men,
women like your mother and who you used to be
before you became this other person. You can tell by
the way the doctor looks at you, the tone of his voice
and how he swaggered into the room. Now is not the
time to assert your personhood nor allow him to
frighten you. You pretend that he’s a kindly
grandfather like Lloyd who’d given you money when
you asked. You’ll be paying this doctor to keep you
You stop thinking and feeling and will do as you’re
told. Hide out in that secret space deep inside, the
one where you’ve spent most of your life. Pretend
you’re not attached to this body. Let your mind enter
the sleep mode. When the doctor extends his hand for
the second time, you’re not sure how to respond.
Taking no chances, you bend forward and brush your
lips across his hairy knuckles. You ask no questions.
The less you know, the less to fear. The fewer words
spoken, the quicker this day will disappear. Your
companion sobs but says nothing, her gown now
soaked with tears.
Dr. Sanchez nods as if pleased that neither of you will
prolong this affair. He knows what he’s doing. You
wouldn’t understand or desire to know the details of
the procedure. There’s no reason to waste his precious
time with explanations. The less time spent the better
because he’ll need to get away quickly. These
procedures are also illegal in his country. You surmise
much of this by his demeanor and will remember it
later when your mind dredges up the details. Now Dr.
Sanchez beckons with his ring finger. You and the
other woman follow him into the back room.
After the mother receives general anesthesia, her
cervix is quickly dilated. The curette, a hook shaped
knife, is inserted into the womb to chop the fetus into
Dr. Sanchez introduces his assistant, garbed in surgical
white, but not a doctor. He assures you that although
he’ll perform only one of the procedures, he’ll oversee
the work of his assistant. He excuses himself to gown
up while his assistant helps you and the other woman
up onto the surgical tables. You hope that Dr. Sanchez
chooses you and worry that the other man won’t be as
skillful. You’ll never know what actually happens in this
room, but that thought doesn’t stay in your mind. You
have other things to worry about as you slide onto the
cold metal table, down on your back staring up into the
brilliant lights. The other woman lies within arm’s
distance on another sheeted table, but you don’t look
over at her.
The fetus’s physiology may make it more sensitive to
pain. Mechanisms for inhibiting pain are not activated
until after birth.
As the doctor’s assistant clamps the mask onto your
face, thoughts race through your fading consciousness.
If you die, will your family be able to find you? What if
the anesthesia doesn’t work? What happens if you
wake up in the middle of the procedure? Will you be in
pain after it’s over? You’re thinking of yourself, not the
fetus. The reality of fetal pain won’t be proven until
decades later. Would it have made a difference if you’d
known? That’s a question you’ll wrestle with in your
later years. Now you won’t remember your last thought
before you black out.
You wake up to find a hand shaking your shoulder and
feel dampness between your legs. Peeking under your
gown, you see the belt around your waist and see the
pad. You’re on the bench out in the entry area, the
other woman sitting beside you. The door to the main
room is padlocked. How did you get out here? You
don’t remember. That same woman with the hibiscus in
her hair holds out your clothes and helps you stand up.
“Dress quickly,” she says, helping you pull on your
pants and button your blouse. You first, and then the
other woman. She shoves a scrap of paper into your
hand. “For emergencies only—this hospital, but don’t
give the doctor’s name. Wait in the street for your cab.”
She shoos you out of the small entry room, locks the
outer door behind her, sprints up the steps and
disappears down a dirt pathway. Your companion grabs
onto your shoulder, and together you stagger, one step
at a time, up and out onto the street. You wrap your
arm around her waist as she vomits on the road, but
you never speak, not a word. After you’re back at the
hotel, a man will phone and identify himself as her
boyfriend. They’ll have a plane to catch in a couple
hours. “Where do we get pads?” he’ll ask. You’ll know
because you wandered the streets, alone, to find a
store. But now you’re standing by the road waiting for
your cab and trying not to step in the vomit.
Your throat is parched. The street smells of vomit and
blood and urine. You squint and position your fingers
into a hood over your eyes. Steam rises from the thin
strip of asphalt. There’s a feeling of emptiness inside,
but you don’t fuss over it. You have a plane ticket for
the next day, when you hope to be stronger and better
able to travel. You’ll return to your son, your job, your
classes, and your daily routines. Five years hence, you
envision yourself with a graduate degree, a home, a
new husband and two more kids. That’s your plan, but
it won’t happen. You’ll spend the next seventeen years
trying to replace the baby you abandoned—some would
say murdered—in Mexico City. Was it a girl, you’ll
wonder. Would her hair have been dark or light? Should
you have given her a name? Where did her body end
up? It will become an obsession that haunts you, year
In your mid-forties, after you’ve successfully adopted a
daughter despite being a single parent, you’ll be
obsessed with making her life perfect in every way. If
you hadn’t aborted the other baby, you wouldn’t have
gained this precious daughter. You’ll try not to
remember that part of your past.
Flash forward twenty years. Your daughter graduates
from college. She launches her career, her life. You’re
alone. After you read an article in the New York Times
Magazine about new research confirming fetal pain,
you’ll remember being in Mexico City. You hadn’t
thought about the fetus suffering, only your own pain.
You’ll feel terrible and look for ways to forgive
yourself. The person that you were back then no longer
exists. There were good reasons for your decision even
though you can’t remember what they were. Now out
on the street at high noon, you’re so sure that you’ll
forget your visit to Mexico City.
The cigarette-smoking cab driver has arrived. He looks
down at the road and frowns. “No vomiting in my cab,”
he yells. You slide into the back seat. Your companion
rolls down the window and hangs out her head. You
turn away. You weren’t the one who vomited. The
driver rubs his hand over the top of his head and
mutters to himself. You know he’s cursing, but he
won’t leave you on the side of the street, not in your
condition. He knows all about that. He’s had women
like you in his cab many times. You turn to watch the
rows of gray buildings fade into the distance.
Diana Woods passed in November 2012 from ovarian
cancer after receiving an MFA in creative writing the
previous year from Antioch University, Los Angeles.
The Diana Woods Memorial Award in creative
nonfiction was established at Antioch University in her
memory. Her work was published in The Writer
Magazine, Flashquake, Riverbabble, Flash Me and other