I was the first patient to arrive, but not the first person. The lights were on inside the dull concrete block building illuminating a receptionist, nurses, counselors and doctors as they set about their day. Those other cars were apparently for the protesters who positioned themselves along the road and beside the entrance, waiting for people like me to arrive. Apparently their conviction hadn’t quite hardened yet so I walked a weak gauntlet as they halfheartedly make the case that I’m going to hell.
I waited 19 years to lose my virginity and 4 years to have sex without a condom and 1 month to take a pregnancy test and 3 weeks to get this appointment scheduled. All things considered, the wait wasn’t long but the weight of this secret on my conscience these 21 days has been like a migraine of the soul, or maybe something like what it feels to be pregnant past the due date– skin stretched and streaked, back bowed and aching, kicked at from within but helpless to meet the implicit demand of the one inside knocking to be let out. I’ll let you out, far before you asked. I almost wish for the physical manifestation of this feeling to make itself apparent because the feelings are so much yet I have nowhere to place them. This is the lump that has been bearing down on my mind since the day the stick silently shouted at me like this feeble line of picketers who share many of my feelings but none of the perspective. Fuck them. Fuck me.
Inside, I sign in and take a seat, setting the wheels in motion for what will be a strange mixture of medical and social services. First is the ultrasound, a process I’ve never experienced but have witnessed 1,000 times in the fantasy realm of television. Hollywood is obsessed with the symbolic poignancy of glimpsing a grainy sight and a muffled sound of The Future personified. I am making small talk with the nurse about her daughter’s summer camp activities in an effort to focus my attention and to portray myself as a more balanced person than this experience alone might suggest me to be.
A “counselor” submits me to a series of questions, each one is a riddle of escalating moral judgment– “How many pregnancies have you had?” “How did you get pregnant in the first place?” “Do you know who the father is?” “If there are twins, do you want to know?” The last step is less of a question than an “action plan” which amounts to selecting a birth control method. The counselor not-too-subtly coerces me into choosing the option that requires the least of me– contraception for dummies– and plans are made to have a T-shaped metal IUD installed into my uterus once its current occupant is evicted.
An IV is plugged into my right arm and I am given the single dose of pain medication that I can afford. Even if I had medical insurance– which I don’t– this procedure probably wouldn’t be covered. The doctor reminds me that I am anemic and half-scold–half-warns me that I might need to be hospitalized at my own expense.
I return to the waiting room, now filled with almost a dozen other women in various stages of intense internal retreat. We are all here together but all so alone. No one talks. No one dares express irritation at the wait. No one snaps their gum or talks on the phone. We are too busy actively taming our fears.
At last, I am called to the operating room. A standard-issue hospital bed covered in crinkly white paper lays at the center of an old-fashioned operating “arena” with a conspicuous machine installed in the center of the room– the suction device. It looks to be about half a century old and I imagine a strange parallel to those first vacuum cleaners, the “electric brooms,” that liberated housewives in the 1950s.
My focus falls to the doctor who is looking me in the eye with kindness and patiently explaining everything she is and will be doing. They will be manually expanding my cervix with metal clamps like an internal torture device. They can’t use these when they’re inducing labor when a child is born because the clamps get in the way, but in this case, it doesn’t matter. My body is arranged on the bed, butt scooted to the very edge, feet in stirrups, knees spread wide. The vulnerability is total and absolute, I am a shell about to be turned inside out. The doctor asks the nurse to give me another dose of painkillers “on the house” because “this is going to hurt a lot.”
I don’t remember this part. Probably because there was nothing to see and the things that I felt were such a confusing combination of physical and emotional over-stimulation that I became like a canvas on which so many shockingly bright colors were painted on top of each other that it comes out a muddy brown.
It’s over, time to leave the room. I have been passive and obedient throughout the entire process, but now I find myself speaking up. “Can I see it?” They agree and I will my body to move and my eyeballs to focus and my brain to record: a colorful, iridescent pile; a pulpy puddle; the Future, now Past.
I am back in the waiting room, though I really can’t remember how I got here. Did I walk? Can I walk? I feel even more divided from the other women around me, we no longer share whatever it was we had in common before I went in that room.
I drink a juice box and eat a cookie, like a blood donor. Or, more troublingly, like a kid at snacktime. I stand to go and the nurse tells me I look white as a ghost “are you ok?” I say yes– all I want to do is go home– and 5 seconds later I am vomiting in the trash can in the waiting room on top of a pile of crumpled Kleenex. The mess is violent but contained, a familiarly shiny texture.
The outside air should soothe me but I am shocked by its freshness. I point my body straight for Bryan’s car, in which he is sitting with feet on the dashboard, waiting for my return. I pass the throng of protesters– now appropriately invigorated– and keep a straight line until, again, I am retching. I heave until there is nothing left, my stomach is empty. Everyone falls silent.
As we drive, I fight through the fog in my head to churn through the thoughts edging into my consciousness.
Last year, my sister’s first pregnancy ended on its own accord and she had to endure the trauma of this same procedure in an entirely different context: dignity and doctors; insurance, Hallmark cards, proper pain medication, time and the blessed relief of being a victim rather than a perpetrator. I have never envied her more than I do now.
What if it had been twins? What if I had already graduated? What if Bryan had reacted differently when we found out? What if he pulled out sooner? What if, when we broke up, we never got back together? What if I never get pregnant again? What if I regret it tomorrow? What if I never have another chance to have a child? What if I do and one day she gets pregnant… to soon? My mind is churning over possibilities like a desperate tarot card reader drawing the whole damn deck to drown in the terrible and wonderful possible fates that might befall me. This is the most Final thing I’ve ever done.
Bryan grips the steering wheel and his entire body lifts from the seat of the car as his right foot slams on the gas. He swerves between the railway crossings– directly into and out of the potholes while my eyes and ears simultaneously put together the evidence that a cargo train is bearing down on us. I scream and the metallic whine of the passing engine harmonizes with my anguish.
He stops short just past the tracks and asks if I’m ok.
For the first time today I am looking at Bryan, really looking at him. His shitty driving endangered my life, and his own. And now we survive, for what? I really don’t know, I don’t get to know yet. But I know what I hope: for better days than this; for the ache in my heart to match the feeling in my belly; for the kick inside to be something I soothe and hum and delight in; for the time when he, or she, not I, chose when it’s time to come out. I am a mother-to-be-to-be, and I will get through this.
This is a personalized account as interpreted from the real-life experiences of a friend.