Surface

Photo By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com
Photo By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Liz Lasiter

I found out I was pregnant while I was completing my training at a bourgeoisie swim school in the Presidio, a wealthy residential neighborhood in San Francisco. I was in my early twenties, fierce with rejections from graduate programs, and sleeping with men that weren’t my boyfriend.

After my final interview at the swim school, I walked back to my car with stacks of training homework, a complimentary tee-shirt, and a tight black one piece. I could feel the reality of my body, quickly taking on its new purpose despite my denial. My period: late. My infidelity: coming to the surface. There was a deep longing in my abdomen, a glow on my face. My body knew what it was doing and it didn’t care if I caught up.

During my lunch breaks at the swim school, I was always feeding myself like a starving animal. Salt and bread. Sour cream. Sauerkraut. Sourdough. On my way to the pool I’d stop and get myself Greek food, hummus and tahini cascading over the steering wheel. Sauce on the front of my complementary work shirt and in the seams of my front seat. I had an insatiable hunger. No matter how hard I tried, I could never be satisfied.

Why should I indulge myself? I’d ask myself during these moments of ferocious feeding. Guilty at the grandiose amounts of food. When I took a pregnancy test in the Walgreens bathroom near my house, I immediately decided I didn’t want to have it. I wanted an abortion. I was too hungry and restless to have a baby. I was too unsure of my relationships with men and relationship with myself. Despite my upcoming abortion, I decided to finish up the month of training at the swim school.

Each day I’d thread my ankles and thighs through the slick black suit, one leg at a time. I’d touch the acne on my face. My breasts felt raw and vulnerable under the spandex. My hair always smelled like chlorine, which caused me to retch in the bathroom next to happy whales painted on the walls and step stools for toddlers to reach the sink. The weight of my body was an anchor in the water.

During the lessons when I had to teach the kids to dive into the deep end, sometimes I just felt like sinking. In newborn swim training, they’d place plastic baby dolls in our arms. Treat them like they’re real, they’d say. Their plastic hands were reaching out to touch our faces, their backs curved in a perpetual cradle. In a circle, we would practice our songs, hand positions, and methods for dipping infant heads under the water without getting any in their noses. They told us babies are born natural swimmers. They told us babies learn to be scared of water as they get older.

Softly, I would take my doll through the water. I’d watch it while the waves bounced off of plastic hair rivets. The smell of plastic and chlorine on my skin was so overwhelming, it made me hungry and sick at the same time. It reminded me of being at the Little Rock public pool, where I’d swim for hours and devour anything I could get my hands on after I was through. Microwavable pizza. Half cooked hot dogs. When we were finished with the dolls, we placed them back in their coordinating bins.

During my first lesson away from an experienced instructor, I held the newborn, chubby arms afloat as the babies would try and paddle their malleable legs to the soft lullaby in my voice. I sang “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Sea Star”, matching my tired eyes to their curious ones. Their gazes were intoxicating. One parent would be in the pool as the other took photographs. I’d cup the back of their patchy haired heads and gently ooze them under water. In a second they’d emerge, delicate eyelashes sprinkled with pool water. Then I’d lead the fresh-faced infant back to the dad in the navy swimming trunks where he’d plant wet kisses on baby cheeks, cooing congratulatory words.

I was a stranger, a pregnant stranger, holding their baby just above the surface of the water. Would they have trusted the instructor in her sleek black swimsuit if they knew of insecurities of motherly instincts or lack thereof? Would they have judged her in the same way she was judging herself?

I couldn’t help but think of my own mother during this time. The instance she saw me take my floaties off at the public pool in Little Rock, eventually jumping in after I sunk to the bottom.

I took my instructor’s manual with me to my procedure. I held it over my face while a priest called me a murderer. It rolled off his tongue the same way cheater had when spoken by my ex-boyfriend. The priest’s clothes smelled like frankincense, and I remember it burning in the cathedral when I was young. Father Henry, the father I would see daily at my church school, had the same potent, peppery smell on his clothes.

My mentor at Planned Parenthood had a six year old child in my swim program. We just want to get him to the green ribbon, she said directly after the procedure was over. My voice trembled when I responded to my mentor. Her name was Sophie. She held my hand tightly when I’d welp in pain, sick from my stomach contracting. She rubbed my hair and put a heating pad on my back. She didn’t call me a murderer or a cheater. She was a woman, a person, who understood.

Tell him he has to move with his breath, I said as I threaded my ankles and thighs back into my underwear, one leg at a time. I didn’t have the heart to tell her I was going to quit once I got home. Sophie led me to a chocolate brown recliner. My weeps sounded like whispers. I felt lonely. I felt relieved. The curtains separated me from the other girls. I could hear them breathing slowly in between sips of water.

Back in the waiting room, I sat in another section for my antibiotics. When Sophie handed me my brown paper bag, I could hear the music as doors opened and closed. Familiar hymnals were playing at full volume out of an old portable stereo. Songs I knew by heart. We had to sing at my Catholic grade school. Somewhere deep inside of me I still knew all the lyrics, which prompted only admiration for what it is to know beautiful words, but also frustrated for making me feel I had to be a certain kind of woman when I was only a girl. A woman who only wore dresses in church and never thought about sex. A woman who can’t know anything bigger than her unless she does those things. A woman who should feel bad about her decisions and mistakes.

The surface outside was glowing under the Mission District sunlight. The man who had harassed me earlier leapt from his chair to yell into my ear. He followed me the entire way down the sidewalk, shoving pamphlets of how to heal, how not to go to hell, how it’s not too late for me. I threw the pamphlets in the trash.

In the distance I could hear the hymnal was at its chorus again. I thought about how it wasn’t too late for me. I thought about how I could still be a mother when it felt right. I thought about how I could still be spiritual even though I wasn’t religious. I thought about how kind strangers can be despite others who want to make me feel as bad as they do. I thought about the way water works to carry people onward to new beginnings and how this time I wasn’t going to let myself sink.

•••

LIZ LASITER was born and raised in Little Rock, Arkansas. She moved to the Bay Area in 2011 to complete her Bachelor’s in Philosophy. She holds an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Saint Mary’s College of California. She currently works and resides in San Francisco.

Pin It

The Detour Path

dune
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Powell Berger

You started skydiving in college, a dare at first, then an obsession, and now an escape. You like standing on the step of the airplane, clinging to the wing strut, still tethered to the airplane but in just one leap, one moment’s push from the metal sliver holding you, you fall away, the plane banking and disappearing above you. You feel the wind blast against your face, your cheeks pushed flat against your cheekbones, no sounds audible against the wind screaming past you. You revel in the shock of opening your parachute, pulling the little pod tucked on the back of your leg-strap that initiates the sudden stop, yanking you from free-fall, jerking you from your plummeting dive into a quiet, suspended hover above the hues of greens and blues and browns beneath. The rustling sound of the parachute above your head as you glide towards earth fulfills you. In those moments, you are free, certain, invincible.

You pack everything you own in your rattletrap white Chevette—except for the bookshelf that your grandfather built because it’s too big to stuff in the car and you feel bad about leaving it behind but you tell yourself you’ll come back for it—and you drive south. You are in love. Not a man—you’re still too wounded, too raw for that—but a lifestyle, a sport, an escape hatch. You know this isn’t your “real” life, but rather a detour before you head down that inevitable path of career and Washington politics and all things you’ve always known you’ll do. But now, this opportunity beckons, and you can’t say no.

You spent most of your college holidays in Florida—Thanksgiving, spring break, Easter—encamped at the biggest, baddest, best skydiving center in all the world, learning from the sport’s luminaries, trying to hone your skills. World champions congregate there, and you wanted to learn to do the complicated freefall acrobatics like they do, the ones you’ve seen in the magazines. Now they want you to manage this legendary drop zone, and you are only twenty years old. You! You can’t say no, and while you know it won’t be forever, it will be for now.

You drive the eight-hour trek from Atlanta with all your books, your skydiving rig (the one you bought by pawning your beloved flute and hoarding waitressing tips) and your blue jeans and tee shirts and gauzy cotton skirts shoved in the back of the Chevette that your mother gave you when you left home. You start your new job. The pilots like you because you pay them on time. Most of the other skydivers like you well enough, too. They largely ignore that you still don’t have the skydiving expertise that they have. You’re not fooling yourself. You understand your skydiving skills are mediocre, but you love it in spite of your lagging abilities and you appreciate the attention when the skydivers you’ve read about take time to jump with you, to teach you. And you love the scene, alive with risk and money and big dreams. And drugs, planeloads of drugs. It is Florida in the 1980s where planes no longer deemed fit for drug-running haul skydivers. Including you.

You meet a guy—a man, really—and you start dating, and soon you move in together. He’s fifteen years older than you, but somehow that seems okay and he’s part of skydiving’s “it” crowd and you like that. And you like him. Between you, you know all the best skydivers in the world and all the best coke dealers and where all the best parties are. Sometimes you host the parties. The sport’s glitterati turn out for your parties, and your life is full and you forget the bookshelf that you said you’d retrieve, the tongue and groove mitered corners dinged by Nancy Drew and history texts and political science theories. Your mother entrusted you with it when you left for college, and you know that she’d be disappointed to discover you’d left it behind. But you are young and alive and happy and the open hole in your soul left by the boyfriend who died your freshman year is slowly scabbing over and you feel alive again.

•••

The man is cutting the grass in the late Friday afternoon sun when you finally summon the courage to pee on the stick. You are twenty-two now and beginning to forget that this is your detour life with its skydiving and parties and cocaine and life lived large. Until your nipples get tender and your period doesn’t come. You bought the stick at the drugstore where you rarely go, hoping not to be recognized, and hid it until this moment so you can face the stick alone. You open the box and read the small print instructions, studying the clinical sketches illustrating the proper wipe-and-catch peeing position, and you realize you have never done this before. You curse yourself for forgetting the pill so many times, always taking two the next day—or three sometimes—and believing it would still work out. You feel stupid and ashamed and you wish you hadn’t left the bookshelf, hadn’t left that life at all.

Now you pee on the stick and watch the lines appear in a faint plus that bleeds to dark and decisive. You slip out and go back to the drugstore and spend another twenty dollars that you don’t really have for another stick, even though the first one left little room for uncertainty. And again, back in the bathroom you share with the man, the lines cross in the certain plus and your head feels light and the tiny bathroom with his comb and shaving cream and toothbrush on the counter feels cold and prison-like.

You stare at the two sticks, now lined up next to the toothbrush and shaving cream. A fetus grows inside you, maybe six or seven weeks along, the product of this man and you and your life on the detour path. You always said that you didn’t want children, mostly because your now-dead college boyfriend couldn’t have them because the chemo had racked his body and stripped him of heirs, and so you held his hand and agreed that children would not be part of your life. Your life together. But now he is gone and finally, finally after the months of anguish and anger and emptiness, you have moved on to a happier place, on the detour path, and you feel complete again. Although you still talk to him almost every day—tell him stories of your detour life (which he only pretends to understand) and assure him that you are okay— but only when the man is working or sleeping so he won’t know you still live with the ghost of the life that will never be.

The man comes in from mowing the grass and showers and opens a beer. You show him the sticks and wince as the pain crawls across his brow. You sit together on the couch and recount the last six weeks—the all-night parties steeped in alcohol and pot and coke, the meals you’ve not eaten, the sleep you’ve not gotten. You know the first few weeks of development are important, and you know you’ve not behaved well. You are ashamed, and he knows it, but he does not judge.

You talk about the detour life and the future that’s yet to begin—the career, the dreams, the possibilities. He tells you he knows that you never meant to stay and that he supports you, whatever you decide. No one is angry. No one cries.

•••

On Monday, you make the phone calls to find the best doctor, the best place to go. You choose someone who practices at a local hospital and is known to be a good doctor, one who cares about his patients. He assures you it will be simple and that you will be able to have children one day, when you are ready.

It will cost $2500—or maybe it is $1500 or $25,000. Whatever the number, it is money that you and the man don’t have, so he goes to the bank and gets a loan. You wonder what he told the bank, but you don’t ask.

You don’t know that finding a doctor who practices in a real hospital and who takes care to make it simple and sterile and makes sure you are able to conceive and bear children again is not a universal thing. You don’t know that other women don’t have the same options and that you just happen to live in a state where, at least for now, the decision is yours to make. You just know you don’t tell your mother, or your friends, or anyone really, except for the nice lady at the doctor’s office, and she looks at you with understanding and sadness.

You arrive on Thursday morning as directed, and the man waits in the lobby strewn with copies of Time and Newsweek, Ronald Reagan splayed on the covers, while you change and go to the procedure room. You are scared and glad that the man took the day off to be with you. It is as the doctor told you, simple and relatively painless, although the machine makes a sucking sound and you don’t want to think about why. The stirrups are cold and the speculum is uncomfortable and the doctor keeps reminding you to relax your knees as he moves from the sucking machine to his tray of silver probes and scrapers and devices.

The assistant is kind and holds your hand, asking if you are okay when you blink back a welling tear. You are, you assure her, and you feel relieved that it is done yet sad that it had to be.

You sleep all day on Thursday while the man follows the doctor’s instructions to make sure the bleeding isn’t too excessive and that you remain coherent. He brings you a tray of food in the afternoon, which you eat gratefully before slipping again into fitful dreams.

On Monday, the bleeding finally slowed and the pain subsided, the man returns to work. You make phone calls to your friends in Washington, where your real life is supposed to be, and schedule interviews.

•••

In a few weeks, the man will propose to you, sitting at an oceanfront table at sunset, and you will say yes. You will sell your little Chevette—it only starts sometimes now, though it was your faithful friend on the detour journey. The man will join you on your trek to Washington—where you always knew you’d be—uprooting his life so he can be with you as you pursue the career you always meant to follow, and you will build a life together. He will keep skydiving, but you sell your rig while holding tight to the strength found flying free, untethered and so certain.

You and the man will not last forever—the detour too great, your difference too vast—but you will have a son and you will both raise him and cherish him. You will break barriers and your career will flourish, just as you had imagined. Occasionally, usually on starry nights when you feel particularly wistful, you will still talk to that first love—the one who died so young—and you will hope that he’s not disappointed. You will eventually remarry and move again, pursuing your next chapter. The man will remain in Washington, a life he chose because of you, and while you know he is happy, you feel guilty about uprooting him.

Just as the doctor promised, you will have other children—another son and a daughter, who, with your oldest child, form a trifecta of sibling unity, something you cherish because you know it will outlast you, as it should, and you are grateful. They ask about your skydiving days and you smile, remembering the freefall, the invincibility. And every doctor’s visit, every check-up, every test—those routine visits that become part of life as time passes—every time you fill out one of those standard medical forms that ask about your pregnancies, you will flinch and remember. And you will wonder whether to count that first one, so long ago.

•••

POWELL BERGER is a freelance writer living in Honolulu with her two teenagers and two cats, where she revels in their havoc and joy in equal measures. She spends every July as a Program Fellow at the Paris American Academy’s Creative Writing Workshop and dreams of one day living there. Besides her essays for Full Grown People, her work has appeared in various print and online publications, including TravelatiHawaii Business, and Inside Out Hawaii. Her writing world is housed at www.powellberger.com.

To read more by Powell Berger, click here.

Stranger Interlude

our country
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Terry Barr

I watched this man take off his hat. It was one of those worker’s caps like the one in that old photo of Allen Ginsberg’s mother, Naomi, back in the twenties.

Before he took off the cap, the hair sticking out on both sides suggested a younger man. It was rich and lush and very black. But once he doffed it, I could see the dye-line, the gray eking out in the spots that he missed. He was completely bald on top, too. Something wasn’t right, but I couldn’t make myself look away fast enough.

“Terry?”

His companion. She stared as if affronted that I hadn’t spoken first—that I hadn’t recognized her.

“Who’s that, Daddy?”

I was at supper with my four-year-old daughter, Pari. Her sister had just been born the day before, and I was trying to show Pari that she was still special to me, that she would always be my first love. I had let her order a chocolate milkshake for supper at this upscale Greek diner along with a funny-face waffle, an indulgence that I hoped her mother would never discover.

“Just someone I know from our Amnesty group, sweetie.”

“Oh. What’s her name?”

“Cathy, I think.”

“Oh.” She wisely returned to her waffle.

However, Cathy’s relentless stare kept burning into me, and so unwisely I spoke.

“Hi Cathy. How are you?”

“Oh, I’m fine. Terry, this is my friend.”

And maybe she did say his name, and maybe it was Marvin. In any case, Marvin turned to me. He wore heavy, black-rimmed glasses, a yellow Polo shirt, and green hiking shorts. He straddled his chair, his hairy legs protruding from either side. They were the sort of legs one sees on short, but active Jewish men, like my cousin Arnold’s son, Donald: legs that are muscular, compressed, and slightly bowed. Legs used to supporting a thickish frame. Legs that I thought could transport their bearer quickly and with ease in case of trouble.

“So, how do you two know each other?” he asked Cathy, as if there were something between us, something suspicious in the air. Which, of course, there was.

“Oh, Terry and I are members of our local Amnesty International group.”

“Amnesty International?” He turned to me then. “Tell me about that. I’m all ears!”

And he was, though if I stared at his ears, I’d just keep noticing that dye-line: the one separating hair that was too dark from the natural more salt-than-pepper color. Hair highlighted by his pale bronze dome.

“You’ve never heard of Amnesty International?”

I wondered even then why I was about to go on talking to the strange friend of a woman I barely knew, a woman I wanted to know less of. Besides, this was supposed to be a special night with my beloved first daughter who, at this point, was slurping the bottom of her chocolate shake.

“No, I haven’t, so please tell me more. I’m really curious about that name, Amnesty, and what it refers to.”

I explained as briefly as possible about prisoners of conscience; about letter-writing appeals; about volunteers and human rights abuses. Who can say what he heard or didn’t hear; what impacted him or bored him? But what I said next truly did penetrate those ears.

“We work for prisoners all over the world, though by policy, we aren’t allowed to write appeals for prisoners in our own country. That’s because in some countries, the letter writer might then be arrested and thrown into prison or maybe even killed, so we want to ensure that the writer is safe. The only exception to that rule is in death penalty cases; there, you can write about prisoners in your own country. The U.S. has plenty of these cases.”

“Wait a minute. You mean that you aren’t free to protest prisoners in the U.S?”

“Right. As I said, it’s a general rule put in place especially to protect those in other countries who don’t have the same freedoms that we do. Plus, we wouldn’t want to single out a country that has more freedom and make it an exception to the policy.”

I thought I had explained this procedure pretty well. I thought that now I might be able to return to my daughter and our night together. We were heading back to the hospital soon, and visiting hours were growing short. I missed my wife and wanted to see our new baby, Layla.

“Not as free as we are? What makes you think that we’re free?”

I think now of all the things I could have said, “So long, buddy” being foremost. But, of course, feeling the need to defend our nation’s list of Rights and Freedoms, I kept talking: the Right to Free Speech; to Assemble; to keep a Free Press. The Right to eat peacefully in a Greek diner with your daughter without being interrupted by a shady-looking associate and her even shadier-looking partner, a stranger to you.

But this last right was being so easily violated by the pair that it just proved his point.

I looked over at Cathy then, and I remembered what I knew about her, reported to me by my wife who served on one of Amnesty’s subcommittees, the committee on Women’s Rights.

“She’s a member of BirthRight,” my wife said.

“What’s that?”

“A group that works for the rights of ‘the unborn.’”

Cathy had advocated that the subcommittee get BirthRight to endorse their work and be listed as a sponsor for an upcoming event. The subcommittee respectfully declined. Amnesty, despite appearances, refuses all political monikers and manifestos. Being non-political has allowed Amnesty to exist in places that other activist groups can’t. But to be completely honest, virtually everyone in our group was active in other political organizations: the ACLU, the Democratic Party, the Sierra Club. And no one I knew in our group, except Cathy, wanted to work against abortion rights, though if someone were imprisoned simply for speaking out against abortion, we would theoretically work for their release.

To my knowledge, Amnesty doesn’t consider a fetus to be a person. Actually, that’s not exactly true. Amnesty just takes no stand on this issue. But it does question and work against gender-directed abuses around the world—for instance, those who are victims of forced female genital mutilation or of rape and assault by governmental forces. Violations that are not anyone’s choice.

But now Cathy and Marvin were waiting on my response about freedom in our country, and all I could think about was BirthRight. And abortion, and where all of this was leading.

•••

Once, I got a girl pregnant. We hadn’t been dating long, but I knew that she was into me, maybe because once, she confessed that I was “the best thing that ever happened to her” since she’d started her graduate school program the previous fall. So much for what she got out of that Yeats seminar we had.

Of course she wasn’t on the pill. Is it worse that I asked first? That when she said, “No, I’m not,” but then didn’t request that I “be careful,” explosions didn’t erupt in my head?

In other words, we knew what we were doing in that very special way that really means we didn’t.

I didn’t love her; I barely even knew her. In fact, on my way to pick her up for our first date on a clear October night, driving down Kingston Pike, Knoxville’s busiest strip, past the Bearden Bowling Alley and the Half Shell Oyster House, I knew that I didn’t want to be going out on this date. Going out with her. I should have turned around then.

But of course, I didn’t. I have no idea why I asked her out now, and I’m pretty sure I didn’t know then, either. We had sex exactly twice.

Even when her phone call woke me at my parents’ house on a mid-December morning, the first morning of my semester break, I didn’t flinch. Much.

“So, what do you want to do?” I asked.

“I’m getting an abortion. But I need three hundred dollars. Can you help me?”

And so I went to my bank, withdrew the money from my savings account, wondering now what I was going to use to buy Christmas presents for my family, and mailed a money order to her.

Three days later, she had the abortion. She didn’t ask me to be there, and I didn’t offer. Her roommate went with her, I found out later. I saw her once more, when she gave me fifty dollars to help me pay my rent. A few months later, she was dating one of my grad school buddies. I had no regrets about that or how we ended.

For us, the abortion was the right thing to do because our lives together shouldn’t have started or continued with that sort of mistake. I’m sorry we were so stupid. I’m sorry she faced the procedure alone. I’m glad we had the right to do what we did, and I really don’t wonder what our child would have been like.

More than anything, I shudder to think of what would have happened to all of us had we decided to have the baby.

I do feel many emotions as I picture this time of my life, some thirty years ago now. But even after all that time, the feeling that lays strongest inside me is relief.

•••

I’m a little slow about becoming aware of those funny feelings that we all get. Or maybe it’s just that when I get them, I’m too slow to respond.

So as I stared at Marvin’s bald head, fringed with unrealistic hair, I realized that more than his hair was off. I know now that while Pari was finishing her funny face, I should have been calling for our check.

Instead, I looked at this strange fellow and asked, “Don’t you think we have more freedom than, say, people in Uganda, or Iran, or North Korea?”

“Don’t you think,” Marvin sneered, “that our government is watching us all the time, monitoring our phone calls, keeping tabs on what we watch, where we shop? What do you think all those cloudy tracks in the sky are?”

I remembered to breathe just then, and a new truth hit me.

“So, what do you do?”

“You don’t really want to know what I do.”

And in a sense, he was right. Ten minutes earlier, I couldn’t have cared less. Fifteen minutes earlier, he and his crazy legs didn’t exist.

If only we could abort certain scenes.

“Daddy, I’m finished.”

“Okay, sweetie.”

But I couldn’t stop now. It’s funny the challenges we choose to accept.

“No, go ahead and tell me what you do. I’m really interested.”

“Well, while people like you are out playing golf every day, people like me are working for something bigger.”

Now, I had taken two semesters of golf back in college, mainly to keep myself out of activities like tennis that would cause excess sweat and would necessitate a mid-day shower.

“Golf? That’s what you think I do?”

It’s strange what all can get in your way when you should be relating to your daughter, when you should be holding your other newborn daughter. Today, I’d avoid this scene like I would unsafe sex. In fact, just last night when I was sitting on a park bench outside my hotel—the Hyatt Regency—in downtown Louisville, a man scrambled to the bench across from me. He was smoking the butt of a cigarette. I had my IPod in, Wilco singing about “The Ashes of American Flags.” I knew immediately that this guy was off. I had seen him earlier at my lunch break; his eyes had the unfocused look of pure madness. And he was shaking. It was seven in the evening, temperature in the low eighties. I let the song finish, and as casually as I could, I left my bench for safer ground.

But with Marvin?

“No, man. I don’t play golf. I’m a teacher. And you don’t know anything about me,” I said.

“Well, if you must know, I’m part of the Patriot movement. We’re changing this country. Taking it back.”

I stared for a beat. I had heard of such “movements,” mainly from my Southern Poverty Law Center pamphlets like Human Rights Watch. And Klanwatch. Back then, in the mid-nineties, these movements were mainly underground.

What do any of us think of when we hear the word “patriot?” Nathan Hale? Sam Adams? The three-cornered hatted, three-point-stanced character who used to adorn the helmets of the former New England football team when they called themselves the Boston Patriots?

Then, “patriots” were showing up in places like Oklahoma City, Ruby Ridge, Waco. Two years later, one would set off a bomb at Atlanta’s Centennial Park. Another, or actually the same guy, would bomb a women’s clinic in Birmingham, my hometown.

And in my current home of Greenville, South Carolina, a four-year-old boy would get arrested for blocking the entrance to yet another women’s clinic. He was our neighbor, and now he’d have a criminal record. On the news that night, his mother would refer to him as a “hero…a real patriot.”

I wondered then about our definitions, our stances, the people we meet. This same mother once called me over as my wife and daughter and I were out walking. She wanted us to meet her mother, a grinning gargoyle of an old woman who was climbing out of a minivan and wearing an oversized t-shirt.

On that shirt was the silkscreened image of an aborted fetus, about three times the size it would have been. Below the image, the caption proclaimed, “This one might have been yours.”

We couldn’t escape fast enough.

I hope my daughter doesn’t remember that scene, as I do, although I realize, of course, that now she very well might.

•••

The waitress brought our check. I gathered my little girl up, looked back at Cathy and Marvin, and said, “Nice talking to you.”

I’ve always had such good manners.

I don’t remember what—if anything—they said, and I don’t care. I’m thankful that I never saw either of them again, although every time I get an edition of Klanwatch, I scan it looking for news, for the people I barely know. And I’m even more thankful for the freedom to associate with or to avoid whomever I want.

•••

TERRY BARR’s essays have appeared widely in such publications as Graze, Compose, Under the Sun, Tell As a Story, Sport Literate, Four Ties Lit Review, and Purple Pig Lit. This is his second essay for Full Grown People, a site his creative writing students at Presbyterian College read every week. He lives in Greenville, South Carolina, with his wife and daughters, both of whom are fine, compassionate young women.

My Grandmother’s Abortion

shards
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Sara Bir

There’s still a residue of dried cottage cheese curds on the wall. Our dining room is beige, and the white curds don’t show up much. But I know they are there. I’m the one who threw the bowl of cottage cheese.

Frances watched me do it. The bowl was Japanese, one of those cute little ones, a white good luck kitty against a pink background. It hit the wall and cleaved cleanly in half with a satisfying crack. Cottage cheese flew everywhere: the wall, the floor, the blinds, the bookshelf, the books on the bookshelf. The goddamn ceiling. Frances wailed.

I threw it because of her. We were not having a good day together, my daughter and me. Our heads butted over insignificant things, and as they piled up—whining, backtalk, tedium—they became an Ugly Significant Thing. Frances demanded cottage cheese for lunch, then rejected it, lower lip protruding, and that small assertion broke me.

Frances is three, and she is wont to act like a three-year-old. But she is also always extra everything: extra sweet, extra clever, extra loud, extra hitty. We have occasional periods of intense discord that neither one of us are equipped to navigate levelheadedly.

Frances escaped the flying curds but not their implication. The dog quickly began lapping at the cottage cheese spattered on floor, and for impossibly long seconds I watched his purposeful pink tongue erase a small corner of the mess I’d created.

Immobilized, I wondered if this sort of thing goes on in other, less-extra households. Then the urgency of Frances’s crying broke the spell, and I scooped her up and held her against me. I stroked her hair, and she sobbed. I put my hand between her tiny shoulder blades and felt her warm, smooth skin as our breathing slowed to a normal pace.

“Mama, why did you throw my lunch against the wall?” she asked.

“Because I was upset,” I tell her. “Sometimes Mama gets upset and can’t help herself.”

•••

Frances shares her first name with her maternal great-grandmother, my Grandma K. Grandma died when I was four, and I have few memories of her. I treasure a silly 1970s Christmas snapshot of her. She’s laughing, holding a recently opened joke gift from my mom: a giant bottle of Excedrin. Though it wasn’t really a joke, because Mom knew Grandma would use all those pills. She took Excedrin at a pretty decent clip. Shortly before Grandma’s fatal heart attack—there’d been previous ones—she’d posted a package to me containing a summery outfit: blue shorts and a Blueberry Muffin t-shirt that said “I love you BERRY much!” It arrived just days after her death. Thrilled with its contents, I didn’t even notice my mother weeping after we opened it.

Mom drove up to make arrangements for Grandma’s funeral. Mom and her siblings discovered a homemade cherry pie at the house, nearly as fresh as Grandma’s death. Grandma loved to bake, pies in particular, and her adult children all sat at the tiny table in the tiny kitchen of the tiny house that they grew up in and ate that cherry pie. My mother does not bake pies.

Outside of baking, there were not many things Grandma liked to do. An occasional canasta date with her cousin and his wife, short stories in ladies’ magazines, watered-down polka music on the radio to drain out the sound of the young voices filling the house. She was too busy not going insane from raising her four kids for luxuries such as liking things.

•••

The name Frances came into our awareness because of my commute. Heading downtown every morning, my bus passed a posh clothing store, the kind of spot where a pair of knee-high socks costs fifty dollars. It was called Frances May. I hadn’t once set foot in the store, but seeing its name repeatedly from my jouncy seat must have triggered a response. When I was pregnant, I told Mom that we were set on Frances for a girl name.

“You know that was my mom’s name, don’t you?” Mom asked.

I didn’t, and I instantly felt like an ass. As a kid, I always thought of Grandma and Grandpa K as my boring grandparents. “Oh, then all the better,” I told Mom to break the long silence that followed. “It will be nice to have a family name.”

But initially Mom was not enthused about the idea. “I’m sorry. It’s just not a very happy name to me,” she said. I didn’t quite understand why she felt that way, but in the awkwardness of the moment, I didn’t press her for reasons. Mom decided that she’d call her baby granddaughter Francie. Grandma usually went as Fran.

Mom knows little about her own mother’s youth. Grandma’s father died young, and Grandma’s mother married a man who Grandma and her siblings called “the old geezer”. Grandma left school in eighth grade to work—for money but possibly to just get away from home. At first she cleaned houses, and later on, she worked at bars. Since she was neither flirty nor fond of drinking, this seems an odd employment choice, but it probably wasn’t a choice. She needed a job; bars needed a workforce, and bars didn’t require a high school education.

My mom, who never knew her maternal grandparents, has some joyful memories of her own childhood, but not many. She’s the oldest of four, born while Grandpa K was deployed in the Pacific during Word War II. Grandma and Grandpa K met at a dance hall called the Paris Inn, where Grandma worked at the time. To me, it means that there was a time when they did fun things, like dancing.

A son and two more daughters followed Mom. They lived in a modest house on a rural road. The girls all shared one room. They had few toys, few books. Grandpa was an ironworker, and his pay went far enough for them to have a solid middle-class life. Sometimes he went to the bar after work to decompress with his cronies and didn’t come back home for hours.

They had one car and no sidewalks. When Grandpa was at work, Grandma, who was not an outside person, was stranded at the house. For discipline, Grandma brought out what all the kids called the hittin’ stick. My uncle got his dose of the hittin’ stick more than his sisters, until he was big enough to yank it out of Grandma’s hand and chase her around the yard with it.

Grandma K was an anxious person, either by nature or by circumstance. Beginning in her late thirties, like many middle-class women of the time, she took diet pills (stimulants, basically), which could not have been helpful in achieving the state of calm that always eluded her. Her stress management choices—if that’s all it was, stress and not something more clinical, more constant—were cigarettes and tea. She drank tea, not coffee.

After Mom graduated from high school and moved away to work as a secretary, Grandma wrote her letters every week. They could have easily just spoken on the phone, especially given the content of the letters, which were unexciting recaps of what Mom’s siblings were up to or afternoon visits with nearby relatives. Looking at one of those letters, with their precise grammar and neat, old-fashioned script, you’d never guess they came from the pen of a woman who didn’t finish eighth grade.

All of these things I know because Mom told me. She makes a point of telling me family things, because her mother didn’t. So I know I’m thin, like her. I wear glasses, like her. I bake pies, like her. I’m starting to get arthritis, which plagued Grandma’s hands, though she barely mentioned it to anyone.

Grandma didn’t have an explosive personality like me, although she did yell at her kids, and often, run-of-the-mill nagging-mom stuff: “Keep out of there!” “Quiet down!” “Your hands are filthy!” She was kind but not down-and-dirty nurturing. (A housekeeping fanatic, Grandma wasn’t dirty anything). Mom learned how to sew, not from Grandma, but Grandma’s sister-in-law, Mom’s Aunt P, who had a special fondness for my mom. Aunt P had married well and lived several hours away, in a big city that must have seemed cosmopolitan compared to the dull Rust Belt town where Grandma’s family had settled.

Aunt P lived a long, full life. Mom made an effort to see her about once a season, especially once Aunt P was in her nineties. During one of those last visits, Aunt P told Mom that Grandma had had an abortion.

When Mom said this to me, I was full of questions: When did this happen? Did Grandpa know? Did Aunt P accompany her? How did they pay for it? How did Grandma manage, in her little world and little town, to find a place that would provide this service?

The one question I didn’t ask was why. I already knew the answer to that.

•••

My husband and I were the first in our group of friends to conceive. Which is amazing, as we have yet to catch up to them with them in other aspects of being grown up. Like: developing solid careers, buying a house, building up savings. But I felt that yearning bodily urge for something to grow inside of me, and we figured why wait? Months later, I was pregnant. Simple.

What’s not simple is how, since having Frances, my highs have been higher and my lows have been lower. It’s like something chemical kicked in, a sinister hormone from a rogue gland secreted on scattered, dread-filled days. And then it’s my turn to be extra: extra unresponsive, extra reactive. Add a newborn to the mix and the default façade of sanity would crumble.

•••

Aunt P accompanied Grandma to the abortion. It would have been Grandma’s fifth child; she was about forty at the time. There was no money for another baby, but maybe there was a lack of something else, too. Mom remembers a phase in her teens, late in the 1950s, when Grandma would break down crying for no apparent reason at all. It had been a bad year; Grandpa had spent many months unemployed, no ironworking jobs available.

“I think, looking back on it, she was crying because she was pregnant again and didn’t know what to do,” Mom said in light of Aunt P’s revelation. “She may even have been hurting herself, trying to lose the baby. There weren’t a lot of options.” So Grandma’s option was an illegal abortion, which must have terrified her. How did she know if the doctor was trustworthy? Who would watch the kids while she left town and then returned, scraped raw inside, needing to recover? Did it wrench her apart, knowing that to preserve her family she’d have to end a pregnancy that began just as the ones resulting in the four children she loved? Mom’s family went on only one vacation, to Niagara Falls, when the kids were still at home. Outside of that, the abortion would have been Grandma’s biggest getaway. This one trip that she did for herself wasn’t anything she really wanted to do.

It’s not the details, but the lack of them, that are telling to me about Grandma’s branch of our ancestry. She must have been loved and cared for to some degree in her youth. What if my daughter had been born back then, to Grandma’s family, raised with the ominous, menacing presence of an unwelcome stepfather? Would she be the spirited, confident girl I recognize? Or would her sharpness be dulled, her light hid under a bushel until it extinguished, deprived of the oxygen that it needed to keep shining? How much Fran is in my Frances? How much Fran is in me?

•••

I have options. Unlike Grandma, I have reliable birth control. After Frances was born, I got an I.U.D. On my insurance plan at the time, it cost me a twenty-dollar co-pay, but that minute contraption—mere slivers of plastic and a few whiskery wires, like a T-shaped fishing lure—retails for about four-hundred dollars. It’s over 99% effective. Sometimes, after we have sex, Joe will ask, “Is that thing still inside you? Does it still work?” Yes and yes, and why he doesn’t ask before? Neither of us likes to think about the splinter of error there, the baby we could accidentally create, the good and the bad parts of us that would load the dice.

If my I.U.D. didn’t work and I got pregnant again, I wouldn’t rule it out, the thing that Grandma did. I’m thankful not to have to make that choice. I can access reproductive health care, even without insurance. I have a husband who, when I say, “Not tonight, honey,” will roll over, sighing, and respect my wishes. I have girlfriends and medical professionals I can talk about sex with frankly. Joe and I together planned when we wanted to become parents.

I wonder what kind of woman Grandma would have been if she’d been able to finish high school, or if she’d grown up in the kind of family that encouraged girls to explore their world. I wonder how many children the newly married her would have preferred to have, if that number was three or two or one. I look at the cottage cheese on my wall, ghostly freckles like snow, my reminder that fits are not worth having. More fits will come, but the aim is to keep them to a minimum, to have them out of everyone’s sight. With more than one kid, god knows what kinds of dishes would be flying around, and at whose head.

But that’s not a problem I have to deal with. Not now, hopefully not ever. I kiss Frances, my daughter, Fran’s great-granddaughter, and turn away from the mottled wall.

•••

SARA BIR lives in southeast Ohio with her husband and daughter. She is a regular contributor to Full Grown People. Her essay “Smelted,” from this site, is included in Best Food Writing 2014. Her website is www.sausagetarian.com.

 

Like this essay? There’s more of Sara’s writing—plus 29 other great essays in Full Grown People: The Greatest Hits, Volume 1!

In Praise of Synthetic Vaginas

uterusembroidery
Photo by Hey Paul Studios/ Flickr

by Catherine Newman

Because a blow-up doll will surely take up too much room in the bed, what I really want is a syngina. You’ll want one too, trust me. Go ahead and Google it. You’re going to be like, “Wait! I’m not a tampon manufacturer needing to test absorbency!” That’s okay. I’m not either. My interest in a synthetic vagina is purely personal. I plan to deploy it as an occasional stand-in for my real vagina, the same way a college may hire an adjunct to replace a professor on sabbatical—with the sabbatical being taken, in this case, by my own weary crotch.

Heterosexuality is a bizarre and perverted phenomenon. Whose idea was it to combine reproduction with sex? Because it was a bad one. At forty-four, after more extreme reproductive experiences than you could count on my nipple hairs, sex feels about as festive to me as a Ferris wheel erected in a cemetery. It’s thrilling, sure, and the views are great, but it’s also just plain weird, and sometimes kind of sad and scary.

In the twenty-five years that Michael and I have been together, I have peed on one gazillion pregnancy tests, give or take. I have thrilled to positive and negative results both, to plus signs and minus signs, double lines and single lines and subtle ombre shiftings of color, as well as the subtle absence of this shifting of color, from white to blue, or white to pink, or white to some other shade of white, and “Honey, are these two colors the same color or not?” (“Um. You mean the white and, uh, the white?”) I have also wept over positive and negative results both. I have thrilled to a positive test, my heart briefly soaring, mere moments before sighing and picking up the phone to call Planned Parenthood. I have wept over a negative pregnancy test, cried for the baby I didn’t want but now wouldn’t get to have, mere moments after clasping my hands in prayer that it would be negative.

Wanted pregnancies have devolved into bloody phlegm, me on my hands and knees on the bathroom tiles, keening, or me propped up in bed, munching on a donut with sticky equanimity. Unexpected pregnancies have progressed into toast-induced vomiting and colossally pendulous hemorrhoids, and then into babies who braced themselves stubbornly against my pelvis and had to be forcibly excavated with scalpels and sections, my belly traversed by a transcontinental railroad of staples and stitches. An unwanted pregnancy was terminated with suction and ad hoc Slavic-inflected counseling (“You khev heared of diaphragm?”), with a stupor of grief and relief and Valium, watching The Bird Cage with Michael and snorting laughter out of my nose at all the funny parts. “You would normally have hated this movie,” he said, and I said, “I know,” and shrugged pleasantly from beneath the drugs. Grief morphed briefly into regret, morphed back, later, to relief. (That anybody would use the fact of grief or regret as an argument against reproductive rights always strikes me as short-sighted. Should every potentially regrettable choice be illegal? Marriage, paint colors, teetery t-strap sandals? Having sex or a baby? Ordering a second basket of fries or a third mojito?)

I have squinted at an ultrasound with my mystified gynecologist until she clapped and said “There!” and pointed to the IUD listing over at the edge of my withered whoopee cushion of a uterus. “Probably not a great fit for you,” she said, adding, superfluously, “birth-control-wise.”

I have had allergic reactions in the vagina, to latex, lambskin, and spermicide. I have had literally dozens of yeast infections and figuratively millions of UTIs. When I explained to my ten-year-old daughter that women get more bladder infections than men, she said, wisely, “Well sure. With women, it’s like you’re walking right into the house. Men have a kind of a mudroom.”

My body is a wonderland. If, by “wonderland,” you mean mismatched breasts like a hedgehog family’s deflating air mattresses. If you mean brown, rubbery nipples that appear to have been pilfered from a 1970s-era baby bottle before getting glued on. It’s not just regular aging—like the fact that my neck looks like somebody’s ill-cared-for scrotum. It’s not the constellations of moles and acne and wrinkles, like a crazed galaxy spanning multiple eons. It’s that my body is like a beautiful and terrible reproductive neighborhood. Sexuality is in the mix, sure, but it’s a flowering window box on a condemned building, with the wrecking ball swinging noisily in the background.

I weep and rage. I’m sad sometimes, or overcome with joy. I fill up, spill over with nostalgia: These silver c-section scars! These golden children! The blinding lights of my life, who bring me to my knees with love, a thousand times a second. I shudder and burst into tears and cry until I laugh.

And Michael? Michael just comes and comes. He has experienced this same twenty-five years as a more or less happy collection of orgasms, as if he’s the simple hydraulic version of a senselessly complicated machine. He has also seduced and delighted, to be sure. Baffled and alarmed, he has held me while I wept. He has fathered two beautiful children in a beautiful way. But for him, sex is still about, of all things, pleasure. It is not a holy act of grief-stricken joy. It is not exhibit A in a report about PTSD, or a tearful, garter-belted clown in a postmodern circus. He does not cling to my neck, weeping, “This is how we made our babies.” His cheerful seed sprays hither and yon. And I hate to begrudge him.

Thus the syngina. I’ll put my novel down, even, and turn towards him willingly, my fake vagina at the ready. I won’t worry, for the thirtieth year in a row, about getting pregnant. I won’t experience full-body flashbacks. I’ll just smile and encourage and my vagina will wink at me, like a retiring police horse, before its blameless and well-earned rest.

•••

CATHERINE NEWMAN is the author of the book Waiting for Birdy and the blog benandbirdy.blogspot.com, where she writes about parenting her kids and feeding her family.