I stared out of the window at a little pond just beyond the parking lot: gray water against gray sky, trash along the banks, a couple of geese waddling around.
The walls dimmed and my vision began to tunnel. The surgeon’s and nurses’ voices muffled, and their figures became shadows. I felt a pressure between my legs, below my abdomen; a thing entered me. Then the feeling was gone.
A grey hum began to swallow the edges of my vision. It moved towards the center. I stared out of the window as the sides kept tightening, closing in. Soon all that was left was the pond and the geese. They became a pinhole, the only things that existed. I squinted. I let my eyes blink for one moment and the lids stayed there, sealed. I managed to pry them back open. I would remember something. I was determined to come out of there with something.
I watched the geese open their mouths and cry at each other. There was no sound.
When it was done, the pond and the geese were all I remembered. But it was better than nothing.
It was only the night before that I’d told Max.
I sat on his dingy brown couch, chewing my knuckles as the TV flashed and the smoke curled between us. I’d waited all through the fancy dinner with the snotty waitress to tell him.
“Hey so, you know that thing you said about how you always have the worst birthdays?”
He curled his lip. “Yeah.”
“Well, looks like I’m gonna have to add to that.”
He cocked his eyebrow and I told him: the morning after the condom had broken, I’d tried to get the morning-after pill. But since it’d been a Saturday, so the doctor’s office had been closed. When I’d finally gone in on Monday, the doctor had told me not to worry; I still only had a four-percent chance of getting pregnant. I’d figured those odds were pretty good, which was why it’d taken me nearly two months to figure out.
Max didn’t look at me as I spoke. He stared instead at the TV. When I finished, he took a long drag of his cigarette. Its end glowed sharp and red. “So, what now?” he asked.
“Well, I can’t keep it. I…” I shook my head. “I just can’t. So I’m going tomorrow.”
“Yeah.” I looked down as the words came rushing out of me. “Look, I’m really sorry. I really didn’t want to tell you on your birthday, but I thought it’d be worse to not tell you until after the fact, and I didn’t think I could tell you on the phone, cause that seemed shittier. I just…”
Max shrugged. “Don’t worry about it.” He ashed his cigarette. “You need money?”
“No, actually. That’s the one good thing: it’s free on my dad’s insurance.”
We sat in the dark, silence and smoke stalking between us.
“So you mean to tell me,” he said at last, “that we used a condom and you took the morning-after pill, and you still got pregnant?”
I looked at my hands and nodded.
“God, what an asshole.” He stubbed out his cigarette. “It’s definitely mine.”
Then Max rolled his eyes shut and pretended to fall asleep. I sat there for a few minutes, waiting for who knows what. Eventually, I just gave up and left.
I’d started to suspect I was pregnant two weeks before, on my own birthday.
It was Thanksgiving Day and I was turning twenty-one. Which, when you’ve already been sober for three years, is pretty anticlimactic. Since I had the day off from classes, I decided to pick up an extra shift at the restaurant where I worked, a nautical-themed pseudo-fine-dining establishment on Oakland’s industrial waterfront, where the stench of sewage and diesel fumes wafted in through the windows.
“You sure you wanna work on your birthday?” my mom’s voice buzzed through the phone in a sigh.
“It’s an extra shift,” I told her, tugging on my support hose. “That’s birthday present enough.”
But I felt nauseous and sluggish the whole shift. I told myself it was because I’d eaten too much pumpkin pie. I told myself the morning-after pill had just fucked with my hormones, and that’s why my period was late, why my back ached, why my varicose veins throbbed worse than usual, why my tits felt swollen and heavy.
I kept having to pee. That I didn’t have an excuse for.
Max and I had been friends for years, all the way back to when we’d teenage misfit fuck-ups together. It seemed like a lifetime ago.
We’d both hung around the edges of the Berkeley punk scene, though neither of us were from Berkeley and neither of us were punks, exactly. We’d sit in the park beside a high school we didn’t go to, bottles wrapped in paper bags, palms cupped around lighters, both of our faces scorched with acne. At least Max could hide his behind a full beard.
It wasn’t just the beard that enabled Max to buy liquor at fifteen. With his Carharts and tired eyes, Max was already something of an old man. He reminded me of my dad, who’d never quite shaken his Midwestern factory-worker roots. Max had the same gruff veneer, the same sharp laugh, the same solid but slightly tensed posture, as though he were still bracing himself against a Chicago wind.
Max lived in his aunt’s garage, a cement-floor converted room he’d moved into at thirteen. Sometimes when she was out of town we’d go over to there to party. But even then he wouldn’t let us into the house to pee—we’d have to stay in the damp garage, with its food wrappers and mattress on the floor, and piss into bottles, or else go pee in the bushes a half-block down.
That first summer I was clean, the summer after high school, I hadn’t known what to do with myself so I’d still hung out with my old friends. They’d wave the weed smoke away from my face and make sure there was plenty of soda water around. Max was still hanging around too.
One night we were walking across the big playground behind Savanna’s house—the one that seemed bigger when it was nighttime, like the gravel could stretch on forever, like it might never end—and we fell behind the rest of the group, and Max said, “So how long’s it been now?”
He dragged his cigarette and nodded. “That’s great.”
He paused, our crunching sneakers and the voices of our friends the only sounds, the only buffers against the humming black.
“My dad always told me that as long as you could go to work in the morning, you didn’t have a drinking problem.”
I snorted. “He never heard of functional alcoholism?”
“I guess not.”
Max flicked his cigarette off into the big black field and for a moment it spun in darkness.
You should have seen the doctor’s face when I told him.
I was sitting on the bench in my little paper gown, swinging my feet like a five-year-old, not like someone ready to have a baby, when he barged in the room. “You’ve gotta be kidding me!” I shook my head. “And you’re sure it was positive? Two blue lines?” I nodded.
“Unbelievable.” He got out a syringe, tied my arm. “Well, let’s do a blood test just to be 110% sure. I mean, those home tests are never wrong, but…” I winced as he slid the needle in. “I’ve prescribed that thing no less than 200 times and I’ve never, never had it not work.”
He pressed a cotton ball into my arm and folded my elbow. “So,” he said, peeling a label and depositing the vile into his breast pocket. “What do you want to do?”
I looked down at my feet. I wished they’d stop swinging. “Well,” I began. When I’d walked into his office, I’d known what I’d wanted to do, what I had to do. But now that I was there, different words were coming out of my mouth. “I noticed that on the Celexa I take, they started putting this new label about not taking it if you’re considering becoming pregnant.”
He nodded. “It’s been found to cause birth defects. Heart problems, cranial abnormalities.”
“Well, what if…” The words baffled me, didn’t seem mine. “What if I wanted to keep it?”
He inhaled. “How long have you been on the Celexa now?”
“You’d have to get off it immediately.” He didn’t miss a beat. “And we’d have to monitor for birth defects.”
I nodded, looked down.
“You wanna think about it?”
I shook my head. “No. No, I want the abortion.”
Max had three fake teeth. I found that out one of the first nights we’d hooked up. “I lost two the night I fell off Angelina’s porch,” he told me, the sheet a damp tangle beneath us. “And the other was my Pops.”
“Yeah,” he said, his face imperceptible in the yellow light. “That’s when I said, ‘Fuck this shit,’ and came out to California.”
I leaned towards his face. “Which ones?”
“These,” he pointed with his tongue. The teeth were thinner, slightly gray. “Loaners,” he said. “Dentist told me they’d only last a year, tops. But it’s been eight.”
It’d been my idea, of course, to start hooking up. By the time Max and I were twenty, our acne had faded to a mask of dull scars. We’d stopped drinking in parks, stopped vandalizing and trespassing, and we’d drifted away from our old friends like stray planets on a lone course.
I stayed sober, worked two jobs, commuted on long rattling trains to full days of college courses—a life that looked like it was going somewhere but felt like it was shrinking, getting farther away everyday.
Max had gotten hired at a metal plating shop where he was quickly promoted to manager, as the boss’s mind was too gone from the years of chemical inhalation to effectively run the place. Max moved into a little rented bungalow across the street. Most days he woke up at six, shuffled across the street, worked till six, shuffled back, ate a microwave dinner standing over the sink, then watched TV, smoked cigarettes and drank enough beer to fall asleep.
“Dating” Max was a negotiation of distances, of calling and waiting and playing on his terms. There were the typical booty calls, sure, but also these other dances: I’d call on Sunday mornings, both of our only days off work, and he’d wait until nine pm to call back—too late to hang out, but early enough to stay up talking. Sometimes he’d call out of the blue, on a weeknight, and we’d talk for hours, me putting off homework, him putting off sleep and god knows what else.
“I wanna open a restaurant,” he told one night. “Everyone would eat shirtless standing over a sink. Lots of sinks, like bar tables.”
I laughed. “Who’d go there?”
“Working guys. Bachelors. Me.”
Max’s life had shrunk to the size of four blocks and that seemed manageable to me, something I could crawl inside, if only he’d let me. He had a rumbly old Ford painted flat-black that was constantly breaking down, that he eventually posted for free on Craigslist under the heading “Just Take It Away.” He tried to take up exercise, jogging around the block in his Carharts for a few days before giving up, sitting back down on the porch with his ancient deaf neighbor and staring at the street.
The City of Berkeley was constantly after the plating shop for environmental hazards. The shop was grandfathered in to the new environmental laws, so the City couldn’t shut them down. But they could certainly fuck with them, Max told me. “It’s the same people who’ll come in wanting their antique light fixtures replated. It’s toxic work—they don’t get that. They want these things but they don’t realize the cost.”
Max bitched about the PC eco-hypocrisy until he discovered that his senile boss had been illegally disposing of waste for years. The old dude had gone so far as to bury vats of contaminants in the yard. One day the guys from the City showed up with a court order and dug out the leaking containers that had been hiding there. The boss was confused, didn’t understand how the containers had gotten there or that it’d been him who’d done it. They’d all stood there in the yard, staring into the gutted, stained earth, smoking and saying nothing.
The first time Max touched me, really touched me, I felt the callouses on his hands move across my skin like hard pebbles, like little knotted secrets. I pulled up his hands, examined them under the dim light—stained under the nails, chapped, rough. Working hands; my dad’s hands.
“I got them insured,” he told me in a whisper. “$100,000 each.”
And then he kissed me.
When I found out I was pregnant, I just wanted it out of me. It wasn’t even the size of a sea monkey but already I could feel it. I was so nauseous I couldn’t eat until four in the afternoon. My breasts ached and I felt a constant pressure on my bladder, a space opening up inside me.
It was alive, I knew that. Even if it didn’t have a heartbeat or a skeleton or limbs, I knew without a doubt that there was a living thing in me. It was carving out a little home in me, and making me sick. I’d lay on the sofa with my hand on my belly, as though I could seal that widening space back shut.
The nurses told me to rest one day after the abortion, after which I could go back to my normal life. “Really, you’ll be fine.” This was good news, as it was the beginning of finals and the start of the holiday season, busy shifts at the restaurant I didn’t want to lose. I didn’t want to ask my professors for extensions, didn’t want to ask my co-workers to cover my shifts. I just wanted to power through, as though it hadn’t happened.
“You’re making the right decision,” my parents told me.
“You did all the right things,” my doctor said.
“You couldn’t possibly keep it,” my best friend said.
This was my mantra, what I kept telling myself as I booked the appointment and went in for the abortion; as I stared out the window at the geese, determined to remember something; as I hobbled back to my mom’s car, so woozy I could hardly walk. Two days later I drove out to school for my Poly Sci final. That was my compromise: I’d drive instead of taking the train.
I circled through the cement cave of a parking lot, dim gray tier after dim gray tier. It was full. Everywhere windshields gleamed with the reflections of orange lights.
I kept circling, going deeper. I looked at the clock. I was going to be late. A panic rose in me: the exam was going to start, and I was going to miss it.
I circled, waited in a line of brake lights. There were no parking anywhere.
The panic mounted. I’d done everything I could, I’d done everything right, and I was going to be late, going to miss it, miss it, miss it.
Suddenly the panic snapped. A cry retched up like vomit. The center of me caved and I hunched over the steering wheel. I laid my head against it, clung my fingers around the sides. Between my legs, I leaked on to a maxipad, the blood and plasma and goo my own little secret, my own stained earth—all that was left.
I knew I couldn’t have done it—gotten off my birth-defect-causing anti-depressants without tapering; kept working while trying to stay to a full-time student, to keep my health insurance; gone on food stamps and WIC; become a mother when I already felt so lost. But in that moment I didn’t care. I felt a space in me, a wide vacuous space whose sides stretched out, up, around me. It was empty in that space, a kind of soundless empty I’d never felt before.
So I let myself pretend. I let myself picture it: Max and I could have gotten an apartment together, the ground-level of some Victorian, a chain-link fence and a cement yard to park the car in. Max could have worked days at the shop, getting off in time for me to work at the restaurant. I pictured him pulling in the driveway, the old engine rattling like a smoker’s laugh. He’d have stepped out, in through the door, and I’d have handed it to him: our baby.
I pictured it as a tiny package that I passed to him, fat and cooing and wrapped in blankets. I pictured its pudgy limbs and glowing skin. I pictured its brown eyes staring out at us. They were vacant eyes, dead eyes. They blinked at me like a time bomb, a ticking thing with holes in its heart, a half-stitched skull and jelly brain, with our acne and alcoholism waiting in its blood. I pictured Max taking it and me walking out, getting in that flat-black car and driving away.
I hugged the steering wheel and sobbed.
I cried until there was nothing left, until I was stunned and numb. Then I wiped my face, got out of the car and walked to my final, the secret still oozing out of me.
I was only ten minutes late.
What the nice people at the clinic didn’t tell me was that it’d be hard.
The nurses had said to wait one day before I went back to work, so I gave it three. I even worked a short shift—five hours and only hosting, carrying menus instead of entrée plates. But by the end of the shift my abdomen was cramping. My limbs felt heavy and hollow, my body like a distant dead weight. The sides of the dining room spun slightly.
I went home, collapsed on my bed and awoke in the wet of blood.
It was dark blood, thicker than regular menstrual blood. I’d soaked through the overnight maxipad. I went into the bathroom, cleaned myself up. I carried the sheets down to the laundry room, pausing to lean against the handrail when the periphery squeezed and swooned.
An hour later, I soaked through another pad.
When it happened a third time, I called the doctor. “I’m kinda losing a lot of blood.”
“How much?” the chipper assistant nurse asked.
“Three overnight pads in three hours.”
“Bed rest,” she responded without missing a beat. “You need to be on bed rest immediately.”
“Can I work tonight?” my voice got small.
“Definitely not. Lie down and call us back if it doesn’t let up.”
It was my first time ever calling in sick to a job.
The morning after the condom had broken—the morning I was unable to get the morning-after pill, the morning the thing was fertilized and roving through me, looking for a place to implant—Max pinned me down on the mattress beneath him.
I’d been getting up to leave. I had relatives in town and a brunch to go to. I was fully clothed when Max grabbed me, pulled me back on the bed and rolled on top of me. His skin was sticky with sweat, with the smell of cigarettes and bad sleep.
“Don’t go,” he said.
“I have to,” I said with a smile, thinking he was playing.
But he just laid there, heavy on top of me. His belly pressed into mine as he breathed, his face buried in my hair. I felt the deep rattle of his voice reverberate through me in one word: “Don’t.”
He lay there, still like that, until I thought maybe he was serious, that he really didn’t want me to go. That I should blow off the brunch and blow off my day, blow off everything and stay with him, in that room with the ashtrays and the stereo and the bed sheet tacked over the window.
Our bodies sank into one another. There was no space between us, no distance in our skin. There was nothing inside those dingy walls of that gray room except us, and I knew then what Max must have known all along: that I’d leave him. But for that moment I let myself pretend. I stroked his hair, felt his breath, and let myself pretend that I would stay.
I lay there beneath him until I was sure I was late. Then I pulled his face up to mine and whispered, “I really gotta go.”
“Fine,” he groaned. But when he rolled over he was smiling, so I thought I was wrong—he’d been playing the whole time.
Max called me once, a week after the abortion.
“How was it?”
“Hard,” I told him. “Harder than they said it’d be.”
I told him about the blood, about the bed rest, about missing work. I didn’t tell him about the parking lot. I didn’t tell him about the soundless place.
I called him a few weeks later, when I knew he’d be at work. The message machine clicked on and I said what I’d rehearsed: that it felt weird to me to let the whole thing go by and not really talk about it; that if he wanted to talk, it’d mean a lot to me; but that if he couldn’t I could understand that too.
He never called back.
Incredible piece Lauren. Thank you.
Wow, Lauren. This feels an odd thing to say given the subject matter, but I’m sort of swooning at the crushing beauty of this. Really, really lovely work.