I saved a life, once.
It all happened because I assumed I was invincible. Not delusionally so, just invincible enough to believe bad things couldn’t happen to me, not really, anyway, not ones that could last, stay, scar.
That belief bore its first cracks when they showed me the little square pink plastic tests, with the tiny circle sample hole, and the tiny circle result hole that shows the plus or minus sign. They do three of them per urine cup, because “it’s always possible for tests to be wrong.”
Of course, I had already done my own test, and there were two blue lines, because I had thrown up about a pound of jelly beans (it was feast or famine, in those times, and I had recently feasted at the bulk foods section of our favorite store) earlier that morning, and I was somewhat terrified that I already knew what was happening. Somewhere inside me, something rebelling. A bloody revolution.
They showed it to me, in a sonogram. The nurse asked me if I wanted to see it. Now that I am remembering, I remember telling her yes. I’m a victim of my own curiosity, sometimes. Or an adventurer — I don’t know. She turned the screen toward me, and in the middle of all that white noise, all of what looked like nothing so much as a Carol-Anne moment of Poltergeist, there was a grey shadow, and in the grey shadow, a white crescent. “The size of the white tip of your little finger’s fingernail,” she told me.
The size of a maggot. In me. This foreign body, cells multiplying.
“Six weeks,” she said cheerily. “You have to wait until seven, to decide.”
That wasn’t true. I had decided long ago. I had decided the very first time I’d ever had sex — if the unthinkable happened, I already knew what I would do.
After, while someone readied my forms, I sat alone in a room with a tape recorder. Alone, to listen to a recording tell me what it meant, what would happen. Policy for the clinic. It was someone’s office, because they didn’t have much space. So I read other people’s mail, and books that were on the shelves. For what could have been as little as fifteen minutes, or as much as an hour, I let the tape run, with the volume turned to nothing.
I didn’t want to know any of the specifics. I did not want to change my mind. I had already decided.
When the clinician came back, I signed the forms and booked the appointment.
It was a long week. The clinic only did the procedure on Thursdays — I booked it as early as possible, showed up early, with him in tow. I could not find someone to cover my morning shift at my coffee-shop job. The lesbians who ran the place had been so kind, and because my own mother was far from me and would not want to know the stupid mistakes I made that had led me to such a stupid position, and we were of no comfort to one another during those years of my life, I told them I was going to be going in for a brief outpatient procedure, and I asked if I could show up the next day instead.
They were happy to switch my shift, until one of them asked more plainly what I was going in for. I told the truth, because it never occurred to me not to. These women were my mother hens. They shepherded me through the painful weeks of living away from my own mother for the first time. They let me take home all the day-olds because they knew I wasn’t eating more than my free shift meal a day. They fed me, and counseled me, and acted like family. But once they heard my situation, once I confessed, it all changed.
They were cold on the phone, and told me if I didn’t cover my shift, I would lose my job. I hung up, stunned. Did that really just happen? I called everyone I knew who worked there. No one would switch shifts with me. Did my mother hen lesbians do that on purpose? I’ll never know. I called them back, but they didn’t want to speak with me.
Show up for my shift, or don’t come back.
I didn’t show up, so I didn’t go back.
Instead, I walked up the steps of the converted house’s big porch, naively confident — not brave, knowing all the risks and choosing anyway — but boldly heedless, decidedly unafraid because I was so young, I believed myself unscarrable. It happened, I chose, and I would get through this all in time to dress up fine tomorrow, do my hair and makeup, and pound the pavement for a new job. It was only an outpatient procedure after all — only the barest of local anesthesia, to keep cost and recovery down.
I took him with me, and he trailed in my wake, unsure of where to stand or sit, or what to do with his hands. He carried an over the shoulder bag with one of those ridiculous leatherbound journals with the celtic knot stamp embossed on the cover. You know, the one everyone had in the nineties while we were all listening to Sarah MaLachlan or Tori Amos or Dave Matthews or Moxy Fruvous. He kept poetry and stories in it, and he was as proud of it as anything, and I probably should have known well before I let him stick anything in me that he wasn’t going to be worth all of this, but I was hungry for approval and praise, and in the beginning he was like the sun on my earth, and it wouldn’t be for another week or so after this that I would find he’d set just far enough that he would no longer warm me. For now, in these moments, he stood in the waiting room while I finished papers, and looked out the window, or at me, and made his best solemn face, and I briefly wondered how much it would hurt.
This was not a clinic in a place where people protested. At that point, despite the judgmental mother hen lesbians, I lived in an odd haven of women’s rights and progressive thinking. My life was not in danger. No one had a bomb. No one threw red paint or fetus dolls. No one held signs and called me a whore. It was a safe place, for all that the rest of my life was not.
They called my name, but would not let him come back with me yet.
They asked me if I was safe. If he hit me. If I were, really and truly, doing this of my own volition. They asked me if I wanted to, one last time, because it is always better to be sure. This was a big decision, they said.
I told them I was sure. I had already decided.
The room was cold. The table was cold. Everything was cold. I laid on my back and stared up at one of those stupid adhesive light covers that paints a picture of balloons or sailboats or strange fish. There may have been a mobile, in primary colors, red wires, and blue and yellow rounded triangles.
He was with me, to my left. The clinicians were in front of me, and to my right.
I don’t remember if there were stirrups. I don’t remember if I wore a gown. There was a thin blanket, but I was still cold. I remember the pinch. That’s what it felt like — like a pair of massive forceps reached up and in and plucked at me, peeling a pear from the inside out.
I remember a deep-seated pain that was strangely full and sharp and somehow underwater, in the dark red ocean of me. I remember wanting to close my legs. It hurt. I had not comprehended until those moments, how deep my body went. It felt like some strange warping of space that made no sense. It felt a hundred thousand miles inside me, behind my belly button, as though they were excavating some strange pit below the table, below the floor, below the crawlspace or basement or whatever was under the house that was the clinic that held me. In and down and far away, but still inside me.
They kept telling me to relax.
I kept telling myself to relax.
I couldn’t relax.
I never looked. I never saw any blood, but the color of clutches of pomegranate arils and dark red wine kept coming to mind. Not brick. Not candy or apples or fire engines, but velvet and purple. I couldn’t smell anything except antiseptic, and my own sweat. What I remember is how my ears got wet; tears rolled from the corners of my eyes and slid down through my hair, and went around and in my ears. At first they were hot, and then they were cold, and then they were just sticky.
They kept apologizing and telling me I was ‘doing good’ and it would ‘be over soon’.
He looked, sometimes, to what they did, and then he looked at me. He held my hand. When he didn’t know I saw, he looked alternately afraid and bored. I imagine I might have made the same face, if our situations were reversed.
How could he know what it felt like, after all? How could he know to make enough of a concerned face that it felt as though he gave a damn that we were both stupid, but I was the one on the table?
I attempted to imagine what was happening inside me. I knew what a curette looked like, what suction hoses looked like, what specula looked like. I knew, medically, all that they were doing. I knew what would happen, and I knew that when I left, it would be done, but not over. I would continue to bleed, and I might find myself hormonally emotional, much as if I were having my period. The body is a strange creature, with its own clock and own designs — mine cramped and bled and wept and felt relief and sorrow and joy.
I ate Chinese food that afternoon. He brought it to me. He said he wanted to take care of me. It didn’t last but not much does. He is gone now, long gone, and I forgave him finally once I understood I had to, to forgive myself, too, for being nineteen. We were all nineteen once, even if we’re twenty-three while we’re nineteen, or thirty-five, for that matter.
I cried, but the sadness didn’t last. It didn’t stay. It didn’t stay gone, either. It still comes and goes, sometime, the way strange and wonderful and terrible things come back to you. The same stupid way you will suddenly remember the PLU code for bananas, or what your fourth grade crush’s name was, or how your beloved second grade teacher once laughed so hard while you were making a commercial for dog biscuits you all made as a class project that she nearly peed her pants, these strange moments blooming inside your head like poppies, flashes of red at the most ridiculous points in time.
You can pity me. You can revile me. You can judge me.
Honestly, though, those thoughts of yours will never touch me — you’ll never manage to ask me a question I haven’t already asked myself and answered as best I could. Besides, what I did saved a life.
It just so happened to be mine.