The Second One in Five Parts
Kate Elizabeth Russell
HOW TO SOLDIER THROUGH
First, forget the put-on bravery, the way you spoke of it freely, telling anyone who cared to listen and then, once you tired them out, telling those didn't care. How afterwards you bought a shirt with I HAD AN ABORTION in black block letters across the chest and wore it just to see who you could turn uneasy. You were twenty-two, the age to fuck up, to be sorry for nothing. No one could hurt you. Not the couch-surfing musician who impregnated you, not the protesters who screamed pleas at you from across the parking lot, nobody. You were part of something bigger than yourself, and that something bigger offered protection from harm. One in three women will have an abortion before the age of forty-five. You used to quote that statistic just to watch a man's face contort into discomfort and shock and awe.
Second, forget, if you can, the thrill that came from regretting nothing. They might say there is never a simple abortion, but the truth is, you had never felt so calm as you did in the recovery room, a nurse filling your paper cup with ginger ale and handing you a paper plate of vanilla wafers. After fifteen minutes, you felt brand new. When you stepped outside and even the protesters were gone. When you ate hamburgers, drank milkshakes, laughed in disbelief that the condition that had defined you for eight weeks was now gone for good.
For all the shit Ira put me through, he at least had the sense to treat me well for the week and a half before the appointment. That week and a half was the first time in two years that he acted as though he liked me, and though no one could blame him for being sick of me during those years—the way I clung to him, the way I viewed his attempts to break up with me as bad ideas I needed to talk him out of—a failure to be understanding and generous with me during that week and a half before the appointment would have been, to borrow one of Ira’s favorite expressions, “a bridge too far.”
I don’t mean to sound angry because, truly, anger was never an issue—not about this. It wasn’t his fault. It certainly wasn’t mine. We were twenty-eight and outwardly adult. I had been responsible in the ways a woman is expected to be, but something beyond our control failed. We did what we had to. He was good to me. He let me sleep over every night. He drove me up the coast to the weird German restaurant I loved, the one way out in the boonies that has no reason to exist, that appears out of nowhere seven miles down a rural road and has schnitzel better than in Vienna, which I couldn't say back then because I'd never been to Vienna but I can say now—now that I'm older, well-traveled, thousands of miles from all this.
Ira's car broke down that night on the way home. We waited for the tow truck in his dark, dead hatchback that shuddered each time a tractor trailer roared past. I did my best to be brave, to breathe slowly, resting my forehead against the dash. In the tow truck on the way back to Portland, he and I sat in the back jump seats and listened to the two tow guys bitch about tourists clogging up Route 1. Ira and I held hands the whole ride home, and I probably don’t even have to say how out of the ordinary that was for us.
I loved Ira so hard for so long that being with him felt like always being on the verge of some kind of death. There was no good reason for how relentless I was. He asked me once how I could stay so devoted to someone who acted so indifferent towards me and I didn’t answer, just pretended I didn't hear him.
Ten days after the appointment, I wrote a list of things that scared me:
that I will be sad about this forever
that I will never get over that this happened
that he will someday have a child with someone else and that this happened to us
that someday he will love someone else
Afterwards, whenever Ira brought it up in some subtle, sideways way, he seemed to be asking for my permission not to feel anything about it. I did my best to let him think I didn't feel anything about it either, which was easy because I remembered what it felt like to regret nothing about it, to eat hamburgers and milkshakes and move on with my life. I didn't let him see anything about me. What was the alternative, let him in and let him kill me?
It's been years, long enough to realize that there are things I'm proud of. How brave you were, holding it together all day while you sat next to him in the well-lit waiting room. How easily you talked, how selflessly you kept it from being sad.
You left him in the waiting room while you got the ultrasound, the counseling, and the eventual procedure. God you were brave, biting the insides of your cheeks, staring at the ceiling, gripping the hand of the stranger who stood by your bedside while it happened.
Panic didn't hit you until you were in the place that, in the first time round, had been a kind of promised land—the recovery room, the kingdom of recliners and heating pads. Maybe it was the echo of it all, time folding over onto itself, hurling you backwards five years, or maybe it was a rush of hormones, or the rattlesnake sound as a curtain was drawn around your recliner, but curled there in your cocoon, you were seized with need for him. You looked up at the woman assigned to take care of you, her hands carrying the familiar ginger ale and vanilla wafers, and you started to tell her to go get the man who waited for you in the lobby, that he had a big blond head and wore tight jeans and nice shoes and he was beautiful, just look for the most beautiful man out there and send him in.
But you stopped, closed your mouth, and said nothing but thank you for the soda and cookies. You sat there for the mandatory minutes they made you stay. Do you remember what you said to him when you came back into the waiting room, post-procedure, fresh and clean? I don’t remember. I don’t think you said anything other than oh, it was fine. Oh, it’s over. He drove you to Massachusetts the next day and while you were stuck in traffic outside of Boston, you cried and cried. You cried all the way to Portsmouth and over the bridge back into Maine. What were the things you thought of then, as you cried?
Something like those fears you listed a few days later, something about him someday having a child and forgetting about all this, something about him someday loving someone other than you, something about the unfairness of only your body carrying around the memory of it. He asked you, what is it what is it but you gave him tears, just tears. It had been so long since he’d been kind to you, almost a year since he’d first said that he didn’t love you anymore. You were pathetic, you were shit for still trying to be with someone who cared so little, for letting yourself get pregnant for the second time in your life, for already knowing all the aftercare steps. So you kept quiet. Which was brave, too, even if it didn't feel like it. I'm proud of you. No, really, listen to me. I’m proud of you.
THOUSANDS OF MILES FROM ALL THIS
Years later, I make a new list:
stop calling me
I've moved on
go to bed
I don't love you anymore
He may have seen me cry and cling and even one morning found me passed out on his front steps, but I didn’t let him see me weak back then, back when I was at my weakest, curled in that recliner. I think maybe I knew that someday our roles would reverse. That I would need to turn him away, that I would be the cold one. Asking how it’s possible for him still to love me when I care so little. Indifferent. It’s easier to be indifferent towards him when he never rescued me, never even saw what that room of curtained-off recliners looked like. All pastels and heating pads and soft voices. He can never hold it against me.
“Remember how I left the waiting room and came to you in the recovery room? Remember how you cried and clung to me in that recliner?”
He can never say that to me. That means something. It does, it does.
About the Writer
Kate Elizabeth Russell is a writer and doctoral student living in Lawrence, Kansas. Her fiction and creative nonfiction have appeared in Necessary Fiction, Quarterly West, Mid-American Review, Hayden's Ferry Review, and other journals. She is currently at work on two novels, one set in a re-imagined Bangor, Maine and the other in the Chernobyl exclusion zone. You can read more of her work at her website.