Anna B. Sutton
The nurse is small, chubby and folded over the desk like laundry folded then forgotten. She’s wearing worn pink scrubs and frameless glasses under a bowl-cut of thinning brown curls. She likes me. I hand her my HIV questionnaire, the one the receptionist asked me to print out and complete before my visit, and she barely glances at it. She trusts me.
“Well, aren’t you prepared?” she says, pushing the form aside. “You want birth control?”
I say no, look at the charts on the walls, and think about Leah, a friend from undergrad. Her autopsy confirmed what we all suspected, that it was the birth control that had killed her, hardened her blood and sent it to stick inside her heart. She died two and a half years ago, a week before her 21st birthday, almost two years to the day after I lost my gallbladder to that same stupid pill.
“Just here for a tune-up, huh? Good for you,” the nurse says.
I smile and shrug.
“It says here you’re not taking any daily medication.”
“That’s good. That’s rare. And you’re not allergic to anything?”
I shake my head.
“Great. And any previous surgeries?”
My breath catches. I remind myself that I’ve practiced my list. I know how to deliver it, how to measure my tone, maintain eye contact, keep my hands still in my lap.
“I had a…cholecystechtomy?” I say. “I think that’s what it’s called. I had my gallbladder removed. February, 2007.”
I take my time getting these words out, laugh a little when I stumble over the name of the procedure—to further disarm her, to keep her on my side. When she’s done scribbling on the form, she looks up at me—like all the others, unaware of how fragile our exchange is. She asks if there’s anything else.
“I had an…aspiration…an aspirational abortion. In December, 2007. And I had my wisdom teeth removed. February of 2006.”
I hurry through to the last procedure, although I know the doctors aren’t concerned about minor dental surgery. At least it gives them something to address. It doesn’t leave as much room for that awful silence.
“We don’t include wisdom teeth,” the nurse says, without making eye contact.
I tell myself that I’m just being paranoid, that she hadn’t just glanced at my HIV questionnaire, that the last 30 seconds hadn’t changed the opinion of a trained gynecological nurse in the Student Health Center at a state university. That I must not be the only girl who’s come in here with that specific sort of scarlet letter on her medical transcript.
But maybe no one else admits it. Maybe that’s my mistake.
Harry had been so sweet about it, let me decide what I wanted, paid for everything, spent the week between my diagnosis and my appointment taking me on hikes around the Craft Center and bringing me snacks in the Fibers studio.
I’d come to the Craft Center after three unsuccessful attempts at an undergraduate degree. The small cluster of cabins and lodges sat on a treed hill that dropped into Center Hill Lake; the campus was dotted with discarded attempts by its students—a crumbling clay bust nestled in a disintegrating pile of poorly-woven yardage, a rusted iron bird, the multicolored shards of a misshapen hash pipe. Perhaps the setting spoke to me, because although I no longer lived on the hill, I’d managed to stick it out at the school. After my first year, I’d moved off-campus and into an apartment in Cookeville, Tennessee, 15 miles away. But I still made the drive to the Craft Center four or five times a week, for class and for parties.
There was no clinic where we lived on the Cumberland Plateau, in a county whose only interstate exits were announced by twin 200-foot aluminum crosses. I had made an appointment at a clinic in Antioch, just outside of Nashville, my hometown.
The day I left, Harry showed up at my door.
“I’m sorry,” he told me, holding out a stack of 20-dollar bills. “They didn’t have any hundreds at the bank.”
I looked at the man standing in my doorway—his stubbornly rosy cheeks, blue eyes and blonde ringlets that fell just short of his shoulders. He would have looked like a child, but his skin was weathered from entire days spent in front of the glass furnace, and his body—like the bodies of all the other glassblowers—possessed a fundamental masculinity in its breadth. The strong forearms, the wide, muscular back. His large hand thrusting that absurd amount of money at me had all the earnestness of a toddler handing a toy to his mother. He was giving me what he could. I invited him in.
“I’ve got something else for you in the car,” he told me.
Harry came back from the car holding the gift behind his back. “It’s not much,” he warned. His voice was Colorado dusty, and subdued. “But I wanted to make you something. To say thank you.”
He pulled his hands forward, revealing a clear glass swan that was etched mid-crest over a crystalline wave. It was about eight inches tall, rendered with very little abstraction. It reminded me of something from the center case of a jewelry store. Something dusty from my childhood. A trinket for the elderly. But I took it from him, felt its weight in my hands, and thought of him working in the hot shop, blowing into his gather, pulling at molten glass, sanding and etching its lines in the cold shop. It was unlike the vases he normally made, that were shaped so organically, so textured and layered in sheets of earth-colored glass that they looked like scar tissue. Someone in the studio must have noticed that delicate bird. I wondered how he had explained it.
The day after my abortion, I drove back to school for my final critique in Fibers. I’d indigo-dyed different types of silk—noil, organza, jersey, charmeuse, velvet—and sewn them together into a large, uneven canvas. Around the perimeter of the silk, I’d attached a border of cotton, stuffed stiff with foam. I printed the silhouettes of birds in various stages of flight, at different sizes and tints of atmospheric interference, all across the patchwork silk.
The piece wasn’t finished. A week before it was due, I’d gone home to Nashville for my annual gynecological exam and found out, by accident, that I was pregnant. Urine tests were protocol for any woman who was late—even if only a week or two, even if an irregular cycle was par for the course for that particular woman. I’d sat on the exam table, cradling the little plastic test, crying, until some animal sense of self-preservation washed over me. When it did, I stopped crying and asked the nurse for the number of the nearest clinic. I made my appointment, left the office, the parking garage, Nashville. I remember nothing of the 80 miles between there and Cookeville.
Even through the blessed stillness of shock, I could recognize that I’d known the truth earlier that morning, when I’d woken up. I’d turned away from light streaming in through the window and felt my stomach lurch in a new way. Until that moment, I hadn’t considered the possibility that I was pregnant, that I could ever be pregnant. And as the alarm clock sounded and the possibility pushed at me, so did a solution—abortion. It felt as inherent as a heartbeat.
Having proof changed everything—nausea wasn’t just nausea, exhaustion was more than exhaustion, smoking a cigarette or having a drink felt like a fat, black period on the end of a declarative sentence.
Even Harry had transformed into a sweet, distorted sort of father figure, not just a guy I’d gone home with after a pair of parties. Our first time together was after the Welcome Back Drag party in August. He was wearing a buttery yellow sundress and lipstick on his cheeks. Newly single, I was wearing five-inch heels and a sock tucked into my tights. Drunk and brave, we admitted our longstanding mutual attraction through clouds of hot breath and headed back to his dorm—a cabin on the hill—where we ripped off each other’s dresses. We didn’t have a condom but decided we didn’t care. We’d waited too long to postpone it any further.
A month later, at the Halloween party, Harry was dressed as nigiri sushi: white sweat suit, a large piece of orange foam strapped to his back by a dark green sash. I was a tongue in pink and red, with labels that pronounced different parts of my body as Salty, Sweet, Bitter, Sour. That night, I waited for him to fish a condom from his nightstand. He didn’t. So I waited for him to pull out, come clumsy into the crevice between my torso and my thigh, like he had before. He didn’t. And when, after more than an hour, he slumped against me, noiseless, I figured it was late, we were drunk, I hadn’t felt anything, and he must have given up. He hadn’t.
After the doctor told me that I was pregnant, I was too tired to tell my friends, too tired not to tell Harry, too tired to force any other option—adoption, something more acceptable, something that didn’t so aggressively clash with seven years of Catholic school and a lifetime of dreaming about motherhood. I was too tired to do anything other than notice the thumping addition to every space, to every action.
During that week in December, it took everything I had to stay awake in the studio, to finish the panels of silk that I’d been planning for months. That Sunday, at my final critique, I stood in front of the slipshod tapestry while my professor talked about the importance of craftsmanship when executing a design. My head lolled under the influence of the Lortabs I’d been sent home with.
“I’m sorry,” I told the group, almost giggling, “I had a medical procedure yesterday. I’m a little doped up.”
My old roommate—that weekend, the only other person on campus who knew about the abortion—said she was certain that no one had suspected anything.
“Everyone thought you got your wisdom teeth removed,” she said.
An insignificant extraction. Something not even worth listing.
The Student Health Center nurse who had at one point liked me leads me into an exam room. She sets my chart on the doctor’s rolling stool and instructs me to remove all of my clothes, put on the strange, square, paper vest, and cover my lap with the sheet.
“There’s information there,” she says, still not looking at me, looking instead at the wall of pamphlets. “Lots of good information.”
“The Truth About HPV.” “Waterproof At-Home Breast Exam.” “Herpes.” “Rape.” The titles of the pamphlets are accompanied by Clip Art illustrations or photos of concerned youth in brightly colored sweatshirts. There is nothing here about abortion. There is no pamphlet that provides step-by-step instructions for handling the mood swings that accompany two hormonal spikes in quick succession, or suggests how I should have responded a few weeks after, before Christmas, when my mother, standing in her kitchen, finally snapped and asked, “Why are you being so awful?” There’s nothing that explains why, six weeks after my abortion, when I decided to sleep with a guy who’d been after me for months, it felt good. Why I came. Why I wasn’t scared and didn’t cry, even though I worried that I should have. “There’s information there,” the nurse had said, but not the information I needed.
The door clicks closed behind the nurse, and I undress. The exam room is uncomfortably large and sparsely furnished and I feel—for a moment—with the half-drawn curtain between my exposed body and the door, the lights from the high ceiling reflecting across the expanse of linoleum floor, the furrowed brows of all those concerned youth in their primary colors—that I am on display. The pink mouths of my cholecystectomy scars smile back at the pamphlets, unashamed.
When the gynecologist comes in, her heels click against the linoleum. She looks like every OBGYN I’ve ever visited—fit, middle-aged, with sharp features, sandy curls and black, square-framed glasses. She hums as she skims my chart, then starts singing: “You’re twenty-six years old! You’re a graaaduate student! You had a cho-le-cyst-ech-tomy! And a…” She stops singing.
The doctor tells me to get dressed, that they’ll call if my pap comes back abnormal. Then she sends me to the lab to get my blood drawn. Before she leaves the room, she offers me birth control once more, and I shake my head, “No, thank you. Really, no.”
I wonder if it’s just my imagination, or if all of the women who work here heard about my medical history, if they’ve all decided at once to avoid eye contact. Or am I just ascribing significance to a group of people going through the motions?
The phlebotomist smells like stale smoke and is angry with me, frustrated that she can’t pin down a vein.
“I’m sorry,” I say.
She ignores my apology. “Make a fist.”
I hear the whispered click of the needle penetrating my vein, the low hum of blood pouring into the vial. I stare at the far corner of the ceiling. The phlebotomist asks me if I’m going to faint, and I shake my head. “As long as I don’t see anything, I’m fine,” I say. She removes the vial and snaps another in place. I close my eyes, take a deep breath, feel my helium stomach push against my throat.
At the Women’s Clinic in Antioch, the first room they took me to was the lab. It was just on the other side of the waiting room door, next to the bulletproof glass that encased the registration desk; the chubby blonde nurse in cat scrubs; the security guard in black sunglasses, black turtleneck, black braided ponytail, black holster, black gun. He stood behind the glass; we sat exposed on the other side.
A nurse named Jacquie asked me if I knew my blood type, and I shook my head. “Nobody ever does,” she said, then said something about Rh factor, that they’d have to give me an extra shot, that it would be another 50 dollars.
I nodded and signed a paper. Jacquie led me to the ultrasound room. A new woman—a tech—told me to pull down my waistband and lay back. She rubbed cold jelly on my stomach and moved the handset across my abdomen.
As the machine dragged across my belly, I thought of every movie I’d ever seen that featured a woman who was pregnant and wasn’t sure what she was going to do—whether she was going to keep the baby she’d conceived accidentally with the handsome but immature coworker, or her brutish ex-boyfriend, or her married lover. This was the time—when a baby’s beating existence appeared on the screen—that she’d begin to cry and know that she was ready to be a mother, that she could do it on her own. I braced myself.
“Can’t really even see anything,” the tech said. “You must not be very far along, maybe seven weeks or so.”
“Five weeks,” I said. “To the day.”
She wiped the jelly off my stomach and told me I could pull my pants up. I returned to the waiting room and peeked out of the narrow tinted windows. A line of two-dozen religious protestors stood nearby, at the closest legal distance they could get to the clinic. That morning, as I’d walked across the parking lot, their leader, a middle-aged white man with neat blonde hair, had called to me. “It’s not too late,” he said.
I turned away from the windows and looked around the room—with the exception of myself and a teenage girl who’d been brought by her mother, every woman there was sitting with her partner.
Harry had asked if I wanted him to go with me.
“No,” I’d said, and meant it. “We barely know each other. I don’t feel like making small talk at an abortion clinic.”
He’d been relieved, said he’d thought the same thing.
“This may be weird to say,” he told me, “but if this had to happen, I’m glad it happened with you.”
We were sitting on my sofa. I had set the swan between my feet but was still clutching the thick stack of twenties. I thought of adding the line on my resume: a good girl to get pregnant—quick and discreet, totally chill.
“Are you nervous?” he asked.
“Me, too.” He was quiet for a while, then, “Will you come by my cabin on Sunday, after your critique, and tell me about it?”
I’d only been in Harry’s room three times. Once, after the drag party. Once, after Halloween. And once, a few days earlier, when I’d told him that I was pregnant but not to worry because I’d already made an appointment. And he had told me that it was strange, that people had always warned him not to get a girl in trouble, but that he thought it was a trope. He was surprised it had actually happened.
“It was only my tenth time,” he’d said.
“Tenth time?” I asked, trying not to sound judgmental. “Or tenth girl?”
It was hard to believe. Harry was almost 30—handsome, popular, and a fixture on a small campus of artist types, all grasping at some modern form of bohemian hedonism.
I felt like a succubus, like a wayward Eve who’d seduced an innocent man, who’d gotten him cast out of the Garden. Despite the fact that he was almost 10 years older, I was the one who should have known better. I remembered the sex talk I’d received from a nun in the eighth grade, how she’d separated the girls from the boys and told us two different stories. On the playground that day, the boys had filled us in—they couldn’t control themselves, but they had to try. The girls had been told that even French kissing would send them straight to Hell, because what was a man supposed to do when a woman made her sexual intentions so clear?
When he asked me how many times I’d had sex, I answered, “More than ten.”
As I leave the Student Health Center, the questions on the HIV form run through my head. A list of confessions—what I’ve done, how I’ve risked my health, the health of others. At the bottom of the form, there’s a question that, like penance, wipes the slate clean.
“If you can answer yes to the following, you significantly decrease the risk of contracting HIV and other sexually transmitted infections. Are you in a long-term, monogamous relationship?”
An easy out. Get out of jail free. If someone could love me, then all my sins—the drunken hookups, the forgotten condoms, the jokes I’d made with another woman in the recovery room after we’d each been drugged and dilated and vacuumed clean—they would lift off me like pollen in the wind.
The ink that filled the little box next to “No” had never been so black, so permanent.
That evening, when I recount the events at the Student Health Center to my friends, they all agree that it sounds horrible, that the nurse and the gynecologist are both heinous, that Student Health is set up to make us all feel like terrible harlots. They sympathize, share their own experiences.
But they still flinch when I refer to my abortion, particularly when I use the word itself. Almost always, with the exception of the women who’ve been through it, people flinch. A little less so if I use suggestive terms, like procedure, or something dark, like the big suck. Or when I talk about it with a hushed, shaking voice—appropriately scarred.
For five months, the only people who knew were me, Harry, my old roommate, my sister and my mother. And the three people to whom I’d accidentally confessed at my high school five year reunion, drunk and spinning, 30 minutes and five whiskeys into an event that I hadn’t wanted to attend, a week after my abortion, an hour before I took a cab to my mother’s house and passed out on the floor of the guest room.
And maybe someone that Harry told, if he’d told anyone. I never thought to ask. Self-preservation is, after all, a solitary act.
After the abortion, he and I barely saw each other and didn’t talk on the phone because we’d never talked on the phone. In April, at the campus craft fair, I watched him demo in the glass studio. I watched the muscles in his forearms expand and contract, control the five-foot-long steel gather, the hot-orange liquid glass. That night, a few of us took a handle of vodka on a hike to the lake, and afterwards, he offered to let me crash in his bed. We used a condom. Joked about using two.
The next day, we ran into each other at an outdoor concert at a friend’s family farm. When he saw an opportunity to pull me aside, Harry walked me past the fire pits, to a large oak tree around which cars had been parked, packed together like puzzle pieces—we’d all be spending the night, no driver would complain about being locked in.
“Look,” he said. The rest of the conversation was as trite as its beginning. He was a single guy, wanted to remain a single guy, didn’t want me to get the wrong idea. I brought up the pregnancy. We yelled at each other. I wasn’t the laidback chick anymore; he wasn’t kind. After we walked away from each other, he disappeared into the crowd, and I drank a magnum of cheap red wine, alone in my car, and stomped back to the show. That night, I told every person I saw about the abortion.
A few weeks later, Harry graduated and moved West.
When the receptionist at the Women’s Clinic called me back the second time, she called me in a group. A half-dozen women were led past the lab, past the ultrasound room, down a set of stairs into a basement, a room with musty carpet and a row of plastic chairs all facing a teacher’s desk.
An older woman handed us a packet of papers, then sat behind the desk and began to detail the process.
“If you choose to have a medical abortion,” she said, “we will give you the pill while you are still at the clinic. If you choose to have aspiration, you will be given anesthetic, dilated, aspirated, and then the doctor will perform D&C to make sure no additional pregnancy remains in your uterus.”
She walked us through the list of risks: Failed abortion. Birth defects. Infection. Sterilization. Death. We signed our papers and were led back up the stairs to a second waiting room.
A woman in a NASCAR shirt was already in there with a different group. She was telling the room that her ultrasound had revealed twins, further proof that she was doing the right thing. “We’ve already got three kids, you know. Barely making it, as it is.” A younger girl said that if it had been twins, she would have kept them. “I’ve always wanted two little girls.” She had been disappointed to see a single heartbeat on her ultrasound.
The TV in this second waiting room was playing Saturday morning cartoons. A nurse brought most of us our meds, fat doses of Demerol and Valium. Underage girls were taken to other rooms to receive twilight anesthesia.
We were called, one by one, alphabetically. I was the last to be summoned. A nurse walked me to the bathroom to pee. She stood just outside the stall, in case I fainted from the drugs, or the gravity of the situation pulled me down the pipe with the rest of my waste. I stared at the closed door, her shellacked nails curling over the top, and considered that the only male employee was the security guard.
We walked to the operating room. The doctor was already inside. She was friendly, that same sort of woman—blonde curls, square-framed glasses. An OR nurse’s hands were soft on my shoulders as she guided me onto the table. A large machine in the corner looked more than a little like Rosie the Robot wearing a bright orange bio-waste sticker instead of her frilly maid’s apron.
“First, it’s gonna hurt,” the doctor told me. “Then you won’t feel anything.”
She spread my legs and injected a local anesthetic into my cervix. My muscles contracted in one long, sharp cramp. I tried to distract myself. There was an ornament hanging above my head, a purple angel carved out of wood. They were piping oldies through a speaker in the ceiling.
“That hurt, I know,” she said. “One more injection, but you won’t feel this one. Misopostrol.”
My cervix dilated. The nurse reached under my head and hit a switch that raised the operating table. Just as they were unraveling Rosie’s long arm, the music changed to an old Drifters classic.
There goes my baby, moving on down the line…
I couldn’t help it.
I started to laugh.
The doctor stopped, mouth of the hose extended toward my open legs. I pointed to the speaker and continued laughing and apologizing until they recognized the song.
“No one will believe you,” the doctor said, smiling. She inserted Rosie’s hose and turned it on.
She was right. It didn’t hurt. I felt it, but it didn’t feel painful, not like something being torn out of me. It felt like I was filling up, swelling and stretching, thinning like the skin of a balloon. Like I was full of warm beer and floating on Center Hill Lake. It was over just after the song ended. Then the doctor performed a D&C, something akin to a pap, and told me to lie still for a few minutes.
After that, the nurse, who had kept her soft hand on my shoulder during most of the procedure, helped me into a surgical diaper. I climbed down into a wheelchair and was rolled into the recovery room. It looked just like the counselor’s office in the basement, windowless with the same moist gray carpet, but the plastic chairs had been replaced with plush leather recliners. I wondered if they were donated, or if someone had gone to the La-Z-Boy store to make the purchase. The woman in the NASCAR shirt was reclining in one of the chairs. I was lifted into the seat next to her. She and I made a few jokes about the good drugs. What else were we supposed to do?
By that time, the only other woman in recovery was on the opposite side of the room, her face pressed into the side of her chair. She was crying.
A nurse came by and administered a Heparin shot. When I was ready, I walked to the bathroom and changed out of the surgical diaper and into my own underwear and a pad. I was surprised to see that the bleeding had already stopped.
Outside, it had begun to lightly snow. The protesters were gone.
I don’t regret having an abortion. Regret is dangerous, violent. Can I regret being young and drunk and foolish and fertile? How should I repent? What can I do?
Sometimes, I catch myself thinking about how strange it would be to have a little human—a combination of me and Harry, all chubby cheeks and round eyes. But it isn’t this idea that haunts me.
What haunts me is the look on that Student Health nurse’s face when I told her what I’d done. The way my friends deflect and redirect the conversation when I bring it up over boxed wine. The thousands of tiny white crosses that are planted on the lawn of my grade school every year.
After my Fibers critique ended, I excused myself from the reception and walked across the campus enclave to Harry’s cabin. We lay in bed for a few hours, his arm cradling my back, my head resting against his chest. He asked about the surgery, asked if it had hurt, if I was bleeding. I assured him that I was fine and made a joke about the painkillers—offered to sell them to make back his 500 dollars. We talked about nothing important, little anecdotes from the week, something more intimate than small talk. He told me that after he was done with school, he wanted to walk out into Death Valley, disappear with a few supplies, just him and a tent and the sun.
When that morning’s dose wore off, I drove myself back to my apartment. The semester was over. I’d get a C on my final project. Over the holidays, I’d have to answer my mother’s question about what was wrong with me. As the years passed, I’d tell dozens of doctors, nurses, most of my friends. I’d write a hundred poems obsessing over every small detail of the experience.
I’d hold tight to these things—the swollen suction of the vacuum, the soft twirl of the wooden angel that dangled above me, the smell of the cold medical jelly, the lack of blood, the lack of scars.
Anna Sutton’s work has appeared in or is forthcoming from Third Coast, Quarterly West, Superstition Review, Barrow Street, DIAGRAM, and Weave Magazine, among other journals. In 2013, she received her MFA from UNC Wilmington and a James Merrill fellowship from the Vermont Studio Center. Her manuscript, Playing House on the Bones, was selected as a finalist for the 2013 Crab Orchard Poetry Series First Book Prize and the 2014 Crab Orchard Poetry Series Open Competition. She is a co-founder of the Porch Writers’ Collective in Nashville, TN, Web Master at One Pause Poetry, and on staff at Gigantic Sequins and Dialogist.