These Rooms Alone

Two women, 20 years apart, on the choice they both made.

Jill Talbot | Marcia Aldrich | Longreads | June 2019 | 10 minutes (2,531 words)

 

Interested in more by Jill Talbot and Marcia Aldrich? Read their collaborative essays, Trouble and Someone Called Mother.

I knew I was pregnant the moment my boyfriend fell back onto his side of the bed. I pulled the blue blanket over my naked body, willing it not to be so.

In elementary school, when we were bored in social studies or math, we’d play MASH, but only the girls. We’d write the letters for mansion, apartment, shack, and house at the top; 1, 2, 3, and 4 (for number of children) on the bottom; the names of four boys (for the men we might marry) on the left; and four types of vehicles on the right. Then we’d draw a spiral in the center, count the lines, and begin moving around the square. Our future in pencil. I don’t remember enjoying the game or trusting in it the way the other girls in fifth grade did, their hushed giggles. Most girls didn’t like it when I added a 0 to the children, RV to the housing, a category of careers instead of men. That’s not how you’re supposed to play.

We were raised to follow the narrative of life — college, marriage, career, children — as if this were the only story. In my 20s, I started checking off items like I was playing MASH. I didn’t get far. During my first semester of graduate school, I listened to a nurse on the phone tell me I was pregnant, and when I told my boyfriend of four years, he proposed. This is an odd detail, but that afternoon he had bought a new watch. I remember staring at the black band and feeling the spiral tighten, my choices being crossed out. I said no to all of it. This was not the story I wanted.

***

It took me a long time to realize I was pregnant, to realize I was carrying something inside me.


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Unlike most of my girlfriends in high school I had never dreamed about a future filled with children. I did not make lists of possible names for those children or talk about whether I wanted girls or boys. My friends knew they wanted two boys and two girls and what they would name them. Not for a single second did I look ahead and see myself with a child. Was there something wrong with me, something missing — did I lack the maternal gene? I felt I was supposed to want children and look forward to that day when they would arrive. It was the culmination of my two older sisters’ desires when they became mothers. It was assumed I shared their desires, but I did not. In my fantasies I had multiple lovers but remained unattached to any. I was a singer, an actress, and finally a writer: my essential solitude the common thread. Never was there a child waiting in the wings for me to hold.

***

Everything I wanted, I wanted alone.

After reading your words, I went on a walk to think about what it was I wanted in high school. I went back to my mind at 16 , at 17, those years when decisions were made for me, when I didn’t think beyond the borders of Texas because no one else did, and my parents never offered it as an option having never left the state themselves. I didn’t grow up in a small town, but it felt that way. On my walk, I remembered, clearly, how I had hoped for one thing — to be far away. The rest of my yearnings I don’t remember, not really.

I’ve always felt the pull of elsewhere, somewhere I don’t yet see. How that desire perplexed me at a young age because I couldn’t name it, just fought against all those who tried to warn me against myself. And there were many. You think you want this now, but you’ll see. By the time I finished college, most of the people I knew were still living in my hometown or returning to it, having children, buying houses, choosing color schemes. I respected their lives, I did, but I didn’t see that for myself. What I wanted was still far away, and it wasn’t until graduate school — when I sat in professors’ offices listening to them tell me I must keep going, I must pursue a Ph.D. — that I recognized my secret self, ambition. Everything I wanted, I wanted alone.

***

About a great many things, I was unsure; about my unsuitability to be a mother I was certain.

I don’t know exactly when I got pregnant. I can’t say what I might have felt at the time of conception except to say the last thing on my mind was making a baby. It was not a momentous occasion. I’ve read about sex being enhanced because the couple thought they might be making a baby — that thought never touched me. It only finally occurred to me I might be pregnant because my symptoms couldn’t be explained by anything else. You see, the father had been told after undergoing tests that he was sterile. Until those tests I had dutifully used a diaphragm, carrying it around with me in its blue plastic case with the accompanying tube of spermicide. I hated the thing, but I used it because I knew the worst thing that could happen to me was to become pregnant. At 19 I had nothing about me to recommend I become a parent. About a great many things, I was unsure; about my unsuitability to be a mother I was certain.

***

I was surprised by the crowded waiting room, all ages and races, the way we tried to give one another the privacy we had surrendered in the parking lot.

My boyfriend and I met in college and dated, off and on, for a total of four years. He followed me to graduate school, to Lubbock, where he got a job teaching history at one of the middle schools in town. I was 23. I was following the narrative of life. Begrudgingly. Our relationship felt weary, obligatory at times, something I’d try to break free from every few months, but here we were, together. Here we were, in a gray sky bearing down without the deluge. And here we were, driving to a nondescript building one morning in October, the day after I sat through a counseling session with a nurse, who told me about my body and what it carried in an office that looked like a craft area for a kindergarten class. I restated my choice, my decision, my certainty, then I listened to the steps of the procedure, how long I would bleed, when to call a doctor. Did I understand? Was I sure? If so, come back in the morning at 7:00. Don’t eat anything after midnight. We’ll give you a Valium. I remember my only worry: how we would pay for it. The next morning, I wasn’t surprised by the gathered protestors outside the Women’s Clinic on 67th in their coats of indignation, their posters of blood and Bible verses. I was surprised by the crowded waiting room, all ages and races, the way we tried to give one another the privacy we had surrendered in the parking lot. I slumped down into the Valium, considered the affluent couple in the corner, their gray hair and look of shock, as if their bodies had betrayed them. I remember the numbing shot in my cervix and a painting of blue flowers on the wall and the sound of the vacuum and the way I trembled in the recovery room, sipping Sprite from a plastic cup and throwing up into a trash can and being told it was time to leave.

***

When the father was pronounced sterile, the outcome did not surprise him though it surprised me. I had never considered not being able to get pregnant since I lived in constant fear I would get pregnant. According to the doctor, there was some minuscule possibility I could conceive. The word miracle was used. I remember that. After receiving the doctor’s prognosis, I stopped using birth control, secure in the medical knowledge I couldn’t get pregnant. In late September, I was beset by all manner of physical symptoms I couldn’t explain. Without telling Bruce, I went to the health clinic on campus where I described what turned out to be morning sickness and was told I must be pregnant. I protested but took the test and sure enough six months after the doctor’s declaration of Bruce’s sterility, I was pregnant.

I did not run home to share the good news with Bruce. I called it a mistake, the latest in a long line of terrible mistakes I had been making or that had befallen me since I had met Bruce. It never occurred to me that this might be the only child he might conceive, his one chance at parenthood. Picture a young woman, more like a teenager, who finds herself pregnant and all she can feel is a desperate fear. Perhaps she isn’t a sympathetic character, perhaps she should have felt maternal stirrings, but she did not. There was nothing but the sense that with each passing day she was losing more of who she was, and she had already lost too much.

***

It was the years after, for me, when I lost myself — in drinking, in danger — but it wasn’t the aftershock from that October morning. I am sure of that, though the years with Dean had something to do with what became a recklessness in me. When I left Lubbock to pursue my Ph.D., I learned to act as if there were no rules except the ones I ignored.

What I did, I understand, I did alone.

Dean and I get back to his apartment, and I crawl into bed drowsy and queasy. I pull the blue blanket over me while he paces the hallway, his athletic figure darting back and forth in the door frame. The air conditioner clicks on, because this is Texas, and 20 years from now in 2013, the House will close the clinic we just left, along with half of the others in the state. I begin to doze off, hear the jingle of keys, and call after him, a question. “You have to stay with me, in case I hemorrhage,” I say, but he looks toward the front door and mumbles, “Call the school.” I hear the key turn in the lock and shuffle to the bathroom. Make sure. What I did, I understand, I did alone. I want to be kind, to say Dean couldn’t handle what he had seen that morning, but he saw only a waiting room and fists pounding on his truck when we pulled out of the parking lot. We stayed together out of some perverse, young person view that if we had gone through such a thing together, we had to honor it. When he proposed again that next spring, I said yes. Surely there’s a word other than mistake.

***

In 1970 the state of New York led the way, offering legal abortion on demand through the 24th week of pregnancy. The U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Roe v. Wade wouldn’t legalize abortion nationwide until 1973. Unlike one of my high school friends who had to fly to Mexico for an abortion and another who was secretly admitted to a high-end clinic, I made an appointment over the phone with Planned Parenthood.

It was a cold day when we drove to Syracuse. The day was gray, the waves choppy with small white caps, foamy, spraying when they rolled to the shore of Lake Cayuga, the wind biting. There was nothing fresh about the day.

We left early in the morning to make my appointment. The drive was silent. The decision had been made. There was nothing further to be said and we didn’t say the nothing that was. We parked in a lot by the nondescript building. I checked in at a small metal desk, filled out forms, verified I was 18, then was taken back to the medical part of the clinic. Bruce stayed in the waiting room, empty or nearly so except for him.

I was treated kindly. I had a vacuum aspiration, and I remember the noise of the suction and the pain of the contractions. Then I was moved to an empty recovery room and lay on a narrow bed. It was as if the clinic had been invented and staffed just for me.

***

My recovery room was a row of chairs against a wall in a very small room, more like a hallway. All I remember is white. Maybe it was the white gowns or the white trash can or the white cup I trembled in my hand. We were lined up, not looking at one another, huddled into ourselves until a nurse asked if we could stand. I wonder about the difference between the solitude of your narrow bed in the 1970s and a chair among many in a hallway 20 years later, but nothing’s that different, not really, not even now, because we still shoulder these rooms alone. I told only one person back then — a long distance phone call — a friend who responded by naming girls who snuck away for abortions before we even graduated high school.

One month before the wedding, Dean called to ask, “Ph.D. or me.” I flew from Dallas, where my mother had bought me a white dress, and I sat in the Lubbock airport bar sipping wine when Dean walked in, resignation on his face. I understood — I could chase ambition or I could stay in Texas. I had to cross one of them out. I left Dean in the parking lot, then wandered the empty corridor of the airport in a daze until morning. I got on a plane, and I got on with my life. Later I would come to understand how I sidestepped a story I didn’t want to live. Now, it’s a story I tell.

***

I didn’t tell anyone about the pregnancy and the abortion. It wasn’t the sort of thing I’d share back then, and I had no one to share it with. Did I feel any regret? The girl I was felt relieved. I felt spared from a great calamity. And I felt grateful above all else that abortion was legal, that Bruce could afford to pay for it, and that I had someone who shared my feelings going forward with the decision. I felt lucky my life could resume. I held onto the idea that my getting pregnant wasn’t my fault and that I had been given incorrect assurances I couldn’t conceive. It was Bruce who felt guilty about what he put me through because unbeknownst to him he had passed along the doctor’s false assessment and I got pregnant, I bore the consequences, I had to make the decision and I had to undergo the procedure. It was me, not him, who would have to say I had an abortion when I was 19. He wouldn’t have to admit a thing. I would have to reveal this piece of information for the rest of my life on medical forms. I would have to count myself among the countless women who had abortions. I would not stand apart, unscathed.

***

Jill Talbot is the author of The Way We Weren’t: A Memoir and Loaded: Women and Addiction, the co-editor of The Art of Friction: Where (Non)Fictions Come Together, and the editor of Metawritings: Toward a Theory of Nonfiction. Her writing has been named Notable in Best American Essays for the past four years in a row and has appeared in journals such as AGNI, Brevity, Colorado Review, DIAGRAM, Ecotone, Fourth Genre, The Normal School, The Paris Review Daily, The Rumpus, and Slice Magazine. She teaches in the creative writing program at University of North Texas.

Marcia Aldrich is the author of the free memoir Girl Rearing, published by W.W. Norton. She has been the editor of Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction. Companion to an Untold Story won the AWP Award in Creative Nonfiction. She is the editor of Waveform: Twenty-First-Century Essays by Women published by The University of Georgia Press. Waveformessays.wordpress.com. Her email is aldrich@msu.edu.

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Editor: Krista Stevens

Copy Editor: Jacob Gross