|Without A Sound
This story starts in the blue rooms of the clinic, with the soft voices of nurses, but that is just where I used to think it ended.
I was a senior in high school at eighteen—took a full load of AP classes, was editor of the newspaper for the second straight year, had accepted a big scholarship to a small school five hours from home.
It was May, just weeks before graduation, and I waited each day to feel the regular and comforting menstrual cramps, tried to pretend that the truth was not the truth. It's natural to miss a period or two, I told myself, it doesn't matter that you never have.
Driving home from school, the day just warm enough to put the convertible top down, I stop at the drug store. With my brother staying in town to hang out with friends, I am free from prying eyes and decided it was better to know now.
I wander around the store, pick up some everyday things to shuffle around on the counter. V05 shampoo and conditioner—moisturizing and with a heavy, musky scent. A daily Washington Post for my grandpa. I give in and go to the aisle where condoms are conspicuously surrounding pregnancy tests. Without reading the packages, I choose the kind with a plus-minus indicator. I think this will be easier to read through fear or relief than lines of different shade and number. At the counter, I hope the woman won't pay much attention to the pink and white box buried among my purchases. I have placed the paper carefully on top. She scans them all and I stop her to ask for a pack of cigarettes—Marlboro Lights, box—and she turns to get them. The cigarettes get dropped in the larger bag, and the pink and white box gets a small bag before being dropped in. Maybe she is trying to hide the bright colors. Maybe she thinks I would ask her to if I could say it. Maybe I would.
At home, I speed down the hall in an empty house. I don't know what I am hiding from, but secrecy always seems to mean speed for me. In the bathroom, I read the simple directions and leave them broadly unfolded on the countertop.
If pregnant, a plus sign should appear in the indicator window in 1-3 minutes.
I search out the "faulty test" section—what to do if nothing readable appears. There is an 800 number with available hours listed in Central Time.
I don't feel the sweat on my skin, making me hot and clammy at the same time, and the pounding in my ears seems natural, outside of myself. I take off the foil wrapper and the plastic cap. As directed by the test and years of doctor visits, I must collect the sample after a steady stream of urine has begun. Once the test stick is wet, I replace the cap and lay it on the counter.
If pregnant, a plus sign should appear in the indicator window in 1-3 minutes.
My eyes are locked on the tiny plastic window. I count—one, two, three, four—and a bright purple plus sign appears and deepens and deepens.
I do not wish for my mother in that moment; I do not think about needing her. She has been dead just ten years, and I have gotten used to living without her. I do not consider going to my father, always a loving, double-duty parent. He does not forgive and cannot forget. He would soothe then understand then problem-solve, but in his mind, there would be a new chalk tally under "irresponsible, makes poor decisions." I didn't want that—years of explaining and proving wouldn't be worth the comfort. I could go to my older sister, who always wanted to feel older, needed, in charge. But at 22 she has done less living than I, too shy to answer the telephone and just getting serious with her first boyfriend. I don't think she is really equipped for her little sister to say, "Help me. I am pregnant."
So, I turn for comfort, but not help, to my best friend, Nicole.
My fingers still frozen around the test stick and the purple plus as deep as could
be, I dial the phone.
I am crying, but I can't remember when I started. I suddenly want to be as small as possible in a space that I can control; I push my knees into my chest and rest my chin on them to rock in a compact ball.
"Oh, honey. Oh, honey, I am so sorry."
Nicole says this over and over again. She lets me cry because I have no voice.
When I am quiet, she asks, "What are you going to do?"
I realize in that moment that I already knew, that there was nothing to consider.
"What do you think I am going to do? There's only one thing I can do. How can I have a baby?"
I don't remember what we talked about as I searched the phonebook, but I know we hung up so I could call the clinic.
The voice of the woman who answers is almost too gentle, rolling with a European accent.
"And when was your last menstrual cycle?" she asks after I gave a brief and barely sensible statement of need.
"I need a day to determine how long you have been pregnant and set a time frame for the procedure."
So straightforward and clean. I want to believe this can be straightforward and clean.
She does the math and tells me that on the day of my appointment, I will be a little more than eleven weeks pregnant. According to the law, I can't wait any longer.
The only other person I tell is my boyfriend, the father. We had been friends for years and I want him to just be there for me, just sit and let me cry. We are sitting in my car after dinner and he asks me what's wrong.
"You've seemed weird all night. Is everything okay?"
I stare at the nubby, black steering wheel and take a deep breath.
"I think I might be pregnant." I am hedging; I want to warm him up to this.
"Have you taken a test?"
"No," I lie, "I'm going to do it tomorrow."
"Well, I hope you're not. This isn't really a good time for this."
A good time for this? And it is for me? I think these things but say nothing.
"I'm glad you've got your family because I can't help you take care of a kid right now. Maybe in a few years."
He sort of trails off, ending with one exasperated hand chopping at the air in front of him. I see his face in profile and half-shadows, thanks to the street light in the parking lot. His face is knotted in worry and he isn't looking at me.
"You think I'm gonna keep it?"
"There's no choice but to keep it!" Now, he is angry. "Nobody's killing my kid and I don't want strangers raising him. What else can you do?"
Suddenly, I am glad I lied.
"I do get a say in this, too, you know. But it doesn't matter until after the test."
"No, it doesn't. Can you take me home now? I can't deal with this anymore tonight."
When he gets out of the car, he gives me a peck next to my mouth and reminds me to call him when I know for sure. The next night, I call him and lie again; I tell him I am not pregnant. The night after that, he calls me to say he's decided to get back together with an old girlfriend. He says she's going through a tough time at home and she needs him.
I realize that I have written the word "pregnant" here; I could say it then, too, though the syllables trembled. I haven't written the word "abortion." I couldn't say it then, either. I got up everyday and acted normal. I sat in class, drove home with my brother, talked to my family, took AP exams, visited the college I would attend. I bought bigger clothes and pretended it was because I wasn't running track that spring, took naps and blamed them on late-night homework, learned to control the nausea each time I ate and hold on for the inconspicuous moment when I could slip into the bathroom. I learned to vomit without a sound.
I graduated from high school on Friday, June 13, 1997. The following Tuesday, my alarm rang at 6:30 a.m., and I was in the car by 7—on my way to the clinic—for my appointment—alone.
After paperwork and a blood test, they take me to a room with wood paneled walls. A long bench runs around the side and a few women are already there. They are older. We wait in silence for a long time, and with no clock on the wall or windows for sun, I can't tell the time. A few more times the door opens and a new woman joins us. Still, we are silent. I am the youngest.
Finally, a nurse comes in alone with a clipboard. She pulls a chair toward our group and begins to talk. It is strange to hear a voice in this room.
"My name is Sherry, and we're going to take some time before the procedure to talk about the decision and make sure it is the right one for you."
She says all of this in the same voice teachers use on the first day of school.
"First, I need to deal with medication," she says, "Monica?"
I lift myself up, hearing my name, unaware that I have been curled over as if to disappear. Sherry looks at me.
"You're having a local anesthetic, is that right?"
When I say yes, she marks on her clipboard and goes to a little cabinet in the corner.
Of the seven or eight women waiting, I am the only one having a local anesthetic.
Sherry hands me a tiny paper cup of water and a tiny paper cup holding four, large white pills. "400" is stamped into the granulated side of each. I look up at Sherry, questioning.
"Acetaminophen," she says, "like Tylenol. They'll give you Novocain, too."
Everyone else swallows colorful pills brought in by another nurse. She hands out paper cups from a tray like a waitress with samples. I recognize the Valium in their hands from having my wisdom teeth out in December. Sherry says that they will also have IVs to help them sleep.
When Sherry sits down again, she asks us to introduce ourselves. A round, blond woman in white shorts says that at 43, she is too old for more kids. She and her husband already have three who are well into school, and they have decided together that this was best. Her husband will come to pick her up in a few hours. A woman with dyed-red hair talks about her promotion to manager of her restaurant, how her long-distance boyfriend has faded away, how this isn't the time in her life, even though she is 28 and stable.
I don't remember what words I found in the windowless room. They were probably somehow too little and too much. The truth is that I wanted the life I was planning for myself, that I wasn't prepared to give up my future to a pregnancy or a baby. The truth is that I was 18 and alone because couldn't lean on the would-be father or my family for help.
They didn't even know I was in a clinic, taking huge Tylenol so I could drive myself home after an abortion. I didn't know how to tell them that, could barely admit to myself. I didn't think I could turn to them because what I wanted wasn't there. As I faced motherhood, I wanted a mother who could be stern but understanding, worried yet comforting. But I was used to living without that, used to standing up with no place to find both comfort and answers.
My comfort comes from a new nurse. She has chubby fingers and wears too much makeup. I am on the exam table in a paper gown, staring at the blue ceiling and blue walls, a muted shade of summer-sky. The doctor's white hair, white coat, and large, wire-rimmed glasses stand out against the blue. He speaks with the same accent the receptionist has, but it is so thick I don't understand him, and the nurse must tell me what he says.
"That's the Novocain injection. It will numb your cervix."
I nod at the big needle the doctor holds just above my bent knees. I press my heels into the stirrups and brace myself. With my eyes closed tight, I feel the nurse squeeze my hand hard. She doesn't let go as the hot sting of the needle lasts too long. I know not to move but the muscles in my pelvis convulse.
"Now, you shouldn't feel anything more than pressure when the machine starts," she says. "Just relax. The more you tense up, the more it will hurt."
Her voice is soft with a trace of local accent—country and Southern. She is still holding my hand.
"Now, that's the noise the machine will make," she says after the doctor flips a switch. "Is that okay?"
She asks as though I could have them turn the volume down. It is a steady, mechanical whir, like a wobbly electric fan or an upright Electrolux. The sound fills the room and makes her voice sound far away. Yes, I nod, it is okay.
The nurse says something I can't quite here, and the doctor moves to attach a hose on one side of the machine—a strange collection of hoses, clear jars, and a pump—to one he has already put inside me. I stare at the ceiling and can't look back. The whir becomes like white noise, letting me escape. The nurse still holds my hand. I try to concentrate on the sweat between our skin, the sharp corners of her ring digging into my fingers.
At first, it feels like menstrual cramps, no worse, no better. But they are constant—and get worse. One moment, I am certain that my body will be turned inside out, the next I am free and sure it will stop soon. I can breathe then. When I close my eyes, I see flashes of neon pink and blue behind my eyelids.
It seems to go one forever—the whir, the pain, my hand in the nurse's, the long hose now movie-blood red in the corner of my eye. When the tears start, I try to force them back in, blinking and squeezing.
"I know it hurts," the nurse says quietly, almost next to my ear.
I look up at her and see wetness in her light brown eyes. I think she understands, so I let myself cry. She hugs me with one arm and one side of her body. She is warm. I cry on a nurse's pink smock and stain it with mascara, surrounded by blue walls and an automated whir. She strokes my hair and whispers, Sshhhhh.
I cry because of the pain, but there was more. Shame, fear, and relief crash across me in waves like the neon colors I saw. But the feelings are more abstract; they don't attach to dreams or wishes or thoughts. They're just there.
I keep crying in the recovery room. Softly now. Somehow, even without drugs, I am dazed. I lie in the dentist-type chairs and watch all of the women from the wooden room leave. Every few minutes a clean, young nurse comes in to help one of them walk out.
"Your husband's here to pick you up."
"Your sister just called to ask if she could come to get you. She'll be here soon."
"Your mother's waiting in the lobby. Let's get you ready."
I hear all of this from far away, as though I am in a different room and the sentences are dialogue coming out of someone else's TV. After a long time, the nurse in the pink smock comes in to ask how I am doing. She rubs my arm and touches my face to feel my temperature. I try to smile.
"I think I'm ready to go," I tell her, still lying down.
"You can stay as long as you need to, it's okay."
I look around the room full of chairs and see new faces. All the women I was in the wooden room with are gone already.
"No, I need to get home."
She helps me sit up, and after a few minutes of dizziness, I am standing. I have untucked my long t-shirt to cover the tops of my jeans, which I can't close. I try when I am standing with the nurse holding one arm. Even though they are the largest pair I have bought in the last few months, my body is too swollen and sore to close the zipper.
"Oh, honey," the nurse says after a minute or two, "that sort of swelling in natural. Don't you worry. Just get you home into something loose and comfortable and let your body heal. It's been through a lot."
She helps me walk the short hall to the narrow entrance lobby, but there she lets me go silently. The room is crowded with women filling out papers, and I have to squeeze by a tall man who holds a toddler in a chair near the door.
Outside, it is very quiet, and I listen to the wind before lowering myself into the driver's seat. It hurts to sit up straight so I readjust the rearview mirror.
I drive home aiming the car through the neon stripes of a video game. Tylenol didn't do it, but I feel numb. I think it could be from loss of blood, but at home when I check the thick pad they gave me, it is barely stained with medium-red. I spread out across my bed to wait for more blood; pain comes instead. I begin stretched flat with my arms and legs flung out so part of my body touches any other; then, turn onto my side, curled tight with arms and legs in a knot around my middle; then, extend my body into a straight line, still turned onto my side; and finally try face down with a pillow bunched under my abdomen for support. This final position is comfortable.
That's when I notice the silence in my body; the pain and the shock had blocked this emptiness. The night before, that morning, my insides were vibrating, buzzing— now, nothing. I feel lonely in a way I hadn't expected. Rolling over to call the clinic and ask if this was normal, I realize they can't help me because I don't know what I'm asking: "Should I feel empty inside?"; "Why do I feel lonely all of a sudden?" These questions don't tell the truth—a deep hole has opened up in me and left a silence, and I didn't think I would feel like this. Honestly, I didn't think I would feel at all; I thought this just made sense. I set the phone back in its cradle and turn back over to feel the physical relief of the pillow crushing into me.
After, I remember crying and waking up in the dark, though I don't know when I fell asleep. The emptiness was still there when I woke up. It stayed through a call from my ex-boyfriend wanting me back and saying he wished I really was pregnant so we could have a life together. It stayed through weeks of shopping for dorm furniture and accessories. At some point that summer, I forgot what the "before" vibration felt like, so I no longer noticed that it wasn't there.
A few years later, when I thought I had forgotten that feeling and even the abortion itself, I met a little girl named Kylie at a North Carolina beach on vacation with a friend and his big family. Kylie was the little daughter of a cousin who introduced herself wearing a lime green bikini and pink zinc stripes on her very serious face.
"Hi, my name is Kylie. What's yours?"
I bent down and took her hand, stuck up to shake.
"I'm Monica. It's very nice to meet you."
When I let go of her hand, she curled her index finger at me in a "come here" gesture. I knelt down next to her on the rough, sandy carpet, and she cupped her hands around her mouth to whisper in my ear.
"You know, all these old people are no fun. Will you play with me?"
I nodded that I would and stood up. Kylie knotted herself around my right leg so I walked moving her with me. Her grandmother laughed from across the room.
"She's always like that but never with new people. You just tell her to walk herself if she gets too heavy."
"Oh, no, she's fine. How old is she?"
Kylie is ignoring us and drawing imaginary pictures in my skin with her fingers.
"She's getting ready to turn four in the fall. Then, she'll start preschool, won't you?" Grandmother bent to granddaughter and rubbed her hair. Kylie nodded absently and went on tracing in my skin.
Without even quick math in my head, I know that Kylie is the same age as the baby I would have had. The bottom of my stomach dropped out, and I felt dizzy. I reached out for the counter top and looked down at her golden brown hair, straight and pulled into a crooked, thin ponytail at the crown of her head. She is mouthing words and concentrating hard on whatever she is drawing on the side of my calf. Her grandmother notices the way I have shifted my body, but she misunderstands.
"Come on, honey," she says as she picks Kylie up, "let her rest. You are too big to be carried around like that."
She pulls Kylie away from my leg and her invisible artwork, but the girl holds onto me with her tiny fingers for every second she can.
"We can play later," I tell her. "I think I need some lunch." I make a cheese sandwich after everyone else heads to the beach.
When I go out to the beach that first day, Kylie pulls me down to the edge of the ocean to make sandcastles and decorate them with shells found along the surf.
"Here," she says, handing me a clump of broken pieces of shell, "you can use these."
She has already made one bucket-shaped tower of wet sand and begins digging more sand for her bucket, indicating that I should start decorating the castle. I push shells into the sandcastle tower and watch her hands out of the corner of my eye—tiny pink nails with even tinier crescent moons on each finger. She laughs out loud when the cold, salty ocean water splashes over her as the tide rises, and I count her teeth, check the places they are missing.
Later, when she is tired of the half-finished castle that still has no mote, I watch the speed of her short legs splashing through the waves. The tide is rising, and Kylie forgets to run further up the beach when the waves wash in. Finally, one knocks her down, and she falls, sitting, in the wet sand. I get up to go to her when I hear the scream, but her father and grandmother are already there, wiping off the sand and carrying her away. Her father carries her up the beach with her legs dangling behind him and her face buried in his neck. I sit a while longer next to the unfinished sandcastle and watch the waves wash it away.