by Diana Woods
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 another location.
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 by doctors.”
“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 sandwiches.
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 countertop.
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 chewing gum.
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 determination.
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 makeup 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 makeup 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 alive.
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 pieces.
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 after 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 journals.
Art: Steve Johnson/Unsplash