Like Jeremy Irons
You avoid catching anyone's eye, in the waiting room. At least, that's the strategy you set out with, an automatic sort of etiquette. To look down at your lap for a while, till you feel comfortable enough to look about, discreetly trawling for stories more sordid than your own. It's very close quarters here at the General. There are no more deliveries here. The maternity ward closed ten, maybe even twenty years ago. Montreal's English community's closing up shop. They only perform gynecological surgeries and abortions now, several times a month. Abortion slots fill up quickly, allotted, like all operating time, to affiliated doctors with admitting privileges. You called the clinic first, to ask them what to do. They gave you the names of a few doctors in private practice. By the time you finally decide and call back, your 'procedure' can only be scheduled two weeks later than the date you were first offered. The price of uncertainty: two week's peace of mind.
Usually you shop around carefully before condescending to visit a new doctor, but this time you go to see the first gynecologist who will have you, who had time available. Usually you refuse to see a male doctor (you hate having male doctors!) but this time, you find yourself lying there, legs spread eagled, assuming the most immodest pose on god's green earth. He examines you, to corroborate your story. The speculum snaps open, a sound like a small skull being wrenched from its spine. He tells you to get dressed. Afterward, you sit on a chair, glad for the expanse of desk between you. And then you come to, to the realization that he is grilling you, that by law you are required to convince him of the medical necessity of the "termination." It's a necessity, all right, but a medical necessity? That's like when they shock your heart to get it beating again, isn't it? To bring you back to life?
An abortion would be just like that.
The waiting room is small, windowless and beige. The fluorescent light makes its wave/particle way to the posters depicting gruesome venereal diseases or nagging about AIDS. By 10 am the chairs are almost filled, the room crammed with women's bodies, their sweet exhalations and murmurs suggestive of piety, of nuns at prayer.
The loudest people there are a pasty trio of students in their early twenties. From the university next door, you guess. The young man and woman stand, courage bolsters, companions to their seated friend, protagonist of this dramedy. He has dark wavy hair cropped short, black sideburns, and thick black-framed glasses, that morphed from nerdy to cool sometime lately, when you hadn't been paying attention. Definitely not the father. The other cheerleader is in black jeans and charcoal nubby sweater, shot through with threads of jewel colours. As she chatters, she keeps pulling her sleeves down over her hands. The woman they are there to support is chalk-pale, wispy black hair caught in a loose chignon. She smiles repeatedly, tremulously. They share quiet laughter that hangs on a few beats too long, carrying within it a quality close to hysteria. Been dumped, you think. Or a one night stand. Date rape, maybe?
Across from you sits a slim black woman, about thirty or so. She looks like a churchgoer, in a belted shirtwaist dress, brown, with some small pattern in white, pink and turquoise. She wears no makeup, her hair tied neatly back, slim ankles tucked under her chair, black shoes with chunky medium heels. Her hands are neatly clasped around a small format magazine, what you take to be the Reader's Digest or a romance. Then you decide no, she'd hardly be reading romance today. This place was anathema to romance. Here's a list you'll never see: successful pick up lines for the abortion clinic.
"Come here often?"
"First trimester or second?"
"So how many weeks along are you, anyway?"
"What's a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?"
This last one is what you are all asking yourselves, anyway.
You already have two kids. Girls, one four years old, the other eighteen months. The little one has the chubbiest legs; you call them thunder-thighs. She's just starting to talk, putting words together like beads on strings of meaning. The older one is serious, very serious. She asks questions constantly, trying to understand everything: where the sun goes at night, how mosquitoes make that buzzy sound, where babies come from, why mommy's crying again.
Your husband tells you "It's your body." Perfectly, politically, correct. But you feel his sadness within you like the throb of a second heartbeat.
The difference between planned and unplanned? It's the difference between desert and tropics, consensus and rejection, love and rape. You are colonized by a foreign power, an alien's tentacles extending deep inside your true centre. It has taken five long weeks to decide that for you, at this time and in this place, this is the truth.
The first time you are pregnant, you know almost immediately. Your period is two days overdue. You've an appointment with your GP anyway, having a check-up before your first big trip together. The two of you are headed for the motherlands, England and France.
"I think I may be pregnant,"you tell the doctor.
"You were trying?"
"For how long?"
"About three months or so."
"How many periods have you missed?"
"I haven't really missed any yet. I'm really only a couple of days late."
She raises her eyebrows, her eyes widen, she tilts her head to one side.
"I just have this feeling," you say, holding your ground.
"What kind of feeling?"
"Something I've never felt before. You know the way a cat kneads a pillow before curling up on it? I feel like my uterus is doing that." You open and close your fingers for her, make a sort of squeezing motion.
She holds your gaze a little longer than strictly necessary. You want to tell her you have always been extremely simpatico with that part of you, the hidden inside. You know when you ovulate, aching for a day or two, one side each month, alternating. There is no other explanation for these pains, they've gone on for years and years. Maybe every woman is capable of knowing, if she isn't chemically neutered, you think. You wonder why most women drug themselves for decades at a time, just to be available sexually for a few hours a week. There's no logic to it, it seems beneath your dignity so you have always refused to do it. Maybe dignity has its price.
The doctor handed you a johnny coat, pulled the curtain in front of you, releasing a sound a little like wind chimes. You stripped, always careful to fold your underwear neatly in such circumstances, that day no exception. Once on your back, you hitched your lower half down to the end of the examination table. The paper liner beneath crackled a protest. The doctor helped your heels find their purchase and examined you, taking the opportunity to scrape out a Pap smear.
"Well," she concedes, feeling around, post-speculum, pressing hard inside and out, "it's poss-i-ble. Could be you're a few weeks pregnant." She still sounds dubious. "We start counting from the first day of your last period. We'll do a blood test, for pregnancy hormones, it's more sensitive than the urine tests. The hospital lab will have the results tomorrow. I'll call you."
"It's just that we're going away, you know? And we'd like to know for sure? For ourselves. And to tell our families. Before we go."
"Sure," she said. "You can put your clothes back on."
Later, after all her prodding and pushing, you realize you no longer detect that cat-kneading feeling and you worry she's killed it. But she hadn't.
A middle-aged black couple sit quietly, side by side. Once in a while, as though he's just remembered, he takes hold of her hand. But most of the women here sit alone, unspeaking. Their eyes look inward and far away. They seem to be in meditation.
They call you in one at a time, every fifteen minutes or so. And unlike any other clinic you have ever been to, here they only call out first names.
The nurse hands you a hospital gown and something to put on your bared feet, bids you change and hands you a couple of capsules to take with tepid water she has provided in a small waxed paper cup. You swallow them down, wonder how your throat can feel so dry with water in it. You search out a place to throw the cup you have crumpled in your sweaty palm.
Then, as the pills begin to take effect—Valium, some other muscle relaxant, things you've never taken before—she sits you down, has you sign some papers and talks to you about "the post-procedure protocol." The room starts to turn if you move your head too fast. Everything in it seems to shimmer a bit. What she's saying becomes hard to make out, like you're doing fifty in a hundred mile zone.
"You'll probably have to wear sanitary pads for four weeks or so, probably less. No swimming, no baths. Showers are okay. No tampons, no douches, nothing vaginally. And no intercourse before the discharge stops, either. Do you understand?"
Do you? How to answer? There is so much you don't understand, after all.
"Do you need a follow-up appointment with the doctor? You need to think about what form of birth control you'll be using. Afterward." She looks at you a little harder.
You know you're supposed to respond. Will you go back to the method that so clearly let you down is what she's saying, isn't it? It's hard to figure out. The pills make you feel strange. You want to tell her you know how this whole thing works, you use a diaphragm. The only time you don't, the only time you allow yourself the complete freedom to be natural is when you're menstruating, or for the week afterward. But this once, you got the dates wrong. Turns out this one time it was 12 days since your period. A small mistake. A mistake which currently has gills and a neural tube forming, a mistake an inch long, maybe less. It seemed so minor at the time, one of those statistical things. Like the Space Shuttle. Worked perfectly, nineteen times out of twenty. But that twentieth launch, the Challenger, what a doozie.
You have no idea how you come to be lying on this meagre bed, no recollection of getting out of the orange moulded plastic chair and transporting yourself to the operating room. The illumination here is bright as klieg lights. You try hard not to think about where they'll be any second, "where the sun don't shine." You spy the doctor. He is gowned, gloved and masked, everything the white of a nuclear-flash. You didn't notice, on the only other occasion when you met, how hard the glitter in his eyes is. He holds his hands up, level with his shoulders, elbows bent. He's like a priest is the crazy thought that enters your head. A "hello," croaks out of you. He doesn't say anything, not one single word. Maybe you hadn't really said anything either, you begin to think.
The film Dead Ringers flashes before your eyes. Too bad, you think. You used to like Jeremy Irons. Now maybe you've become him, the monster who invades the holy of holies with grotesque metal implements, with murderous intentions.
A nurse materializes at your left side. "Hold my hand," she says, taking your hand in hers. "Squeeze it hard as you need to. Tell me if it hurts too much." Her eyes are brown, also her hair and skin. Everything else is a pristine, sparkling white. They could make a commercial for laundry soap in here, you think, no problem.
You realize no one has smiled at you since you arrived.
Your feet are in the stirrups; you think back in the saddle again. A sucking sound becomes audible. The speculum pops you open, the doctor injects something into your cervix. How long is the needle, you wonder. How lucky you are to know anatomy, to understand what is happening, you think.
Or maybe not. Your certainty wavers.
He introduces several small rods to your cervix in sequence, each one larger in diameter. You feel nothing beyond the cotton wool stuffing your brain.
You hold the nurse's hand, give it one hard squeeze as a single monstrous contraction lurches through your lower abdomen, like productive labour minus the foreplay. You gasp, tears fill your eyes. You think this is good, good, it should hurt, why not?
And then he steps away from you, still without saying anything (maybe this would have been better done with you unconscious). The nurse watches closely, her latexed hand still touching yours.
"That's it," she says, "it's over. You can get up now."
Suddenly, you discover how cold you are, thighs shaking. Your legs have been uncomfortably jackknifed far too long. The nurse helps you up; the doctor has vanished.
The luminous sheet just lain upon confronts you, a single glistening crimson globule marking the cloth. It takes your breath away. It is the most beautiful colour you've ever seen, in a shape like a teardrop. I've lost it, you think. I've lost my innocence.
You consider pulling the sheet up off the gurney and taking it with you, whipping it round your shoulders like a witch's cape or a burial shroud.
And then, you can see it as a different emblem of your changed life. You imagine it drenched in sunshine, hanging proudly outside your parents' home, the day after the wedding, centuries ago. Its lacy edges dance, gently ruffled by the breeze.