Last spring I took an online storytelling class with Mike Daisey, thinking that somehow it might help me figure out how to write fiction. This was not the intended direction of the class— Mike is a well-known Spalding Grey-type monologist — but one of the assignments he gave did seem to lend itself toward my nefarious purposes. The prompt was: tell two truths and lie, and make a story out of it. We weren’t supposed to write our stories down, but I did anyway.
This is autofiction! I thought, and was all excited about my results. I sent the story off to four different literary magazines, including a local one where I kind of know the people. Every one of them rejected it. No one said why. I’m guessing … it reads too much like a personal essay? it’s too political? I don’t know, but if you want to tell me in the comments, please do. The version here is slightly different than the one I submitted, thanks to a suggestion from my friend the writer and teacher Susan Perabo. (That’s a link to order her books from the Ivy. If you are a short story lover, her collections are stunning.)
There’s more than one lie in here, as faithful readers will recognize, but there is plenty of truth, too. The neighbor is real, though I changed his name, and the golf course is real, too, but the incident that happens there is invented. I changed some of the facts of my own history, just because — for once — I could. In fact, I already used the truth-and-nothing-but version of this material in a personal essay called “Where Mommies Come From” more than 30 years ago. (It’s in Telling.) Now you see, this is why I’m trying to write fiction. Because my whole life is already used up. Most of it, more than once. More than twice!
This week I am giving thanks for the Baltimore Fishbowl and its readers, where my writing and I have had a home for 11 years.
It was shortly after I finally became a mom myself that I found out my childhood neighbor Matty O’Malley had become a national player in the Christian pro-life movement. In fact, I was nursing my newborn daughter in front of the TV when, oh my God, there he was.
“We’re here in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, with Reverend Matt, the founder of Operation Savior,” said the anchor. He swung the mic around to a face I hadn’t seen in decades. The concerned brown eyes, the dark curly hair, the boyish freckles — it was him, all right. He lifted his mayonnaise jar right up into the camera lens.
“This was somebody’s daughter,” he said, pointing to the glob floating inside. “How does that woman even sleep at night?”
They cut to a shot of the clinic entrance, where some poor hunched-over couple struggled through a crowd of self-righteous assholes shouting and pumping their gruesome signs in the air.
I read somewhere that the pro-life movement contains many women who have had abortions, reacting to their own sorrow and guilt by trying to make sure other women are forced to carry pregnancies to term regardless of their wishes. I wonder if this can really be true. Sorrow and guilt, okay, but thinking you should decide for other people?
The baby I was holding in my arms the night I saw Matty on TV was my first child, but far from my first pregnancy. That had befallen me my junior year of high school, the bitter culmination of a long, unrequited crush on Hank Rosenblum, who played the lead in our production of South Pacific. For three years I had been involved in the Drama Club for the main purpose of increasing my proximity to Hank. This year I had struck gold — not only had I been cast in the musical as Islander #3, but in our chemistry class, I had been assigned to be his lab partner.
Doing our lab reports together, running lines, I waited hopefully for signs that Hank was starting to fall prey to my charms, such as they were. But what were they? I couldn’t have told you. A zaftig girl in a scoop-neck leotard and hip-hugger jeans, my messy hair falling over my round black glasses and my ungainly Jewish nose, I walked the halls of the high school consumed by jealousy of my prettier, thinner classmates.
I saw the cast party, which was to be held at Hank’s house, as my big chance at romance. After weeks of anticipation, after hours of trying to decide whether the blue sweater with the cats on it made me look fat, I was so worked up by the time I got there that I basically attached myself to the keg and poured booze down my throat. In fact, I drank and smoked so much that I ended up asleep on the couch after everyone was gone, and wait — um, it seemed like Hank was sort of climbing on top of me. Holy shit! I certainly didn’t want to throw things off by bringing up birth control, and I so much wanted this three minutes of painful poking to be love that I almost had myself convinced.
When I finally got the nerve to tell him, over our Bunsen burner and our Florence flasks, that my period was late, he looked at me with irritation. “Why tell me?” he said. “How do you even know it’s mine?” Well, I knew, but going into it was likely to yield nothing but even greater humiliation. I was on my own —no money, no driver’s license, no nothing.
After a week of silently quivering with panic, I broke down and confessed to my parents. They were quite exasperated but crystal clear about our next steps, moving with alacrity. This would have been true, I think, even if Roe v. Wade hadn’t come down from the Supreme Court that very January. Off we would have gone to Cuernavaca or Toronto. In any case, it was Bye bye baby and hello Copper 7, which was the name of the IUD they installed back then.
That Copper 7 must have gotten a little worn out from what I put it through over the next five years because one day, it took an unannounced vacation. At the time, I was so sure I couldn’t get pregnant that I didn’t worry when my period was a month late, and by the time I figured out what was going on, it was a week before my college boyfriend and I were off to India to meet our guru. Again I had to turn to my parents, who pulled strings to get me an abortion over the Fourth of July weekend. This time I was familiar with the sense of loss that descended on me. The fact that not only was it the second time around, but now I was 21, not 16, surely capable of taking care of a baby, put a harsh edge on the whole thing.
On the other hand, it was clear that my boyfriend felt nothing but relief. This was one of several things that sent us on our separate ways once we got to the ashram. He ended up leaving for Tibet with a skinny girl from Germany. I threw myself into meditation and yoga practice with a vengeance, desperate to escape the prison of my earthly incarnation and my ferocious desires.
I was a lot more careful about birth control after that, and spent most of the next two decades thinking I might not have children, a choice not so uncommon among women writers of my generation. But when I met the love of my life at 39 and surprised us both with a positive pregnancy test, no shotgun was required to send us to the Justice of the Peace. The last thing I expected was to turn 40 married and pregnant. The whole sequence of events seemed like a magical gift from the universe, and the nine months of that pregnancy were the happiest, healthiest and most wholesome of my life.
This period came to an abrupt end when we learned at a final check-up during Week 40 that the baby — our life-changing, destiny-making baby — no longer had a heartbeat. It’s hard to explain, or even remember, how terrible this was. We had drawers full of tiny clothes and nursery walls painted with ducklings. We had a name, a name I never say.
I could have interpreted this tragedy as some kind of devil’s due, I guess. That I had to pay for the babies I willingly gave up with the one that was taken. But I didn’t think that, or if it occurred to me at all I didn’t believe it or dwell on it. What I thought was: I want a baby. I want a baby now. I was running out of time. Despite some crap I read about needing months to grieve, I focused on getting pregnant again as soon as possible.
It worked. The baby girl I was holding in my arms when I saw Reverend Matt on TV was born less than a year after her older brother came home in a ceramic urn, and we threw ourselves into loving her as if we were on fire and she were Lake Michigan, cool and endless.
With all the trouble going on these days vis-a-vis abortion rights, I’ve been looking for Matt to pop back up in the news, but I haven’t seen him.
The night after my high school abortion, bleeding into a thick pad, I felt worse than I knew how to bear. To avoid my mother’s combination of solicitude and irritation and my father’s bad jokes about the mystery daddy, I went out on the golf course that ran behind our development. It was a private course but in the night-time hours, it was hang-out central for kids from our neighborhood, who knew every gap in the fence, every spot to settle in with a six-pack. At my house, we had our own private gate, because my mother was the club champion.
I had stolen a Merit menthol from her pack and planned to smoke it on the wrap-around porch of the halfway house. I stumbled out through the fringe of trees around the ninth tee and plodded up the fairway, my arms wrapped around my belly, weeping. Somehow the baby was more real to me at that point than it had been before, when I knew it was just a microscopic blob of cells. Now that it was gone, it was safe to torture myself by trying to imagine the sweet little infant I could have held in my arms.
As I neared the little white house beyond the green, I saw there was a group on the porch already. I abruptly canned the sobbing and veered away, but too late. Suddenly there was a hand on my shoulder and it belonged to Matty O’Malley.
“What’s going on?” he said. “Are you okay?” Matty was several years out of high school by then, but still living at home two doors down, working with his dad servicing vending machines. Because I was close friends with his little sister Angela, I was over at their house a lot, but he and I had never really made a connection.
“I’m fine,” I said, turning away.
“Really?” he scoffed, but not unkindly. “Sure doesn’t seem like it.”
I looked up and saw his eyes were full of concern. Why did he even care? I couldn’t bring myself to tell him. It occurred to me that he sort of looked like Hank Rosenblum, tall, dark curly hair, the Jewish and Irish versions.
“Can I give you a hug?” he said.
Yes, please. But when the wonderful and therapeutic hug was over, he suggested that I come with him to church on Sunday. He’d recently gotten involved with a Pentecostal group that met in a tent a few towns over.
“Um — I’m Jewish,” I stammered.
“Yeah, it doesn’t matter,” he told me. “Don’t overthink it.”
In truth, I was a little curious about what went on in that tent of theirs. I had heard people were overtaken by the spirit and rolled on the ground speaking in tongues. I very much wanted to be overtaken by something — could this be it? For the rest of the week, I was distracted from my misery by wondering if the navy blue sweater with cats on it made me look fat.
Unsurprisingly my life was not changed by the Pentecostal service. In fact, I was horrified. Between the goofy music, the clapping and shouting, and, yes indeed, the people throwing themselves on the floor, rolling around, twitching and babbling — it really didn’t look all that different from Debbie Linden’s bad acid trip, which had scared the shit out of all of us. I was very glad Angela had come along so I had someone to make faces at and a hand to clutch.
I don’t even remember seeing Matt again until the night he appeared on my television so shortly after my daughter was born. My baby girl, a miracle coming to end a nightmare, joy emerging from pain and blood and tears. But, as it’s turned out, she has grown up in a world full of people who think they know how she should live. People who might, if she disagrees, bring a dead baby in a mayonnaise jar to convince her. People who seemingly, amazingly, are now in charge.
Well, people. I had my own dead baby, and he told me something very different.
The sorrow I felt about the pregnancy I ended at sixteen was not because I made a mistake I would regret for the rest of my life. Both abortions were wise decisions — privileges, almost — that created space and time for me to finish growing up before I took on the challenges of motherhood. Which can include grievous loss. Which asks for everything you have and puts it all at the mercy of a cruel universe. I took my time, but I got there.
I am done with reproduction myself, but my baby girl is a young woman now. Unfortunately, she is less free and less safe than I was at her age, less free and less safe than women in Cuernavaca and Toronto. And that makes me furious. She, actually, is somebody’s daughter.
There is a story floating around, either partly or completely apocryphal, that at some point in their youth, Ann Patchett, Elizabeth Gilbert, Donna Tartt, and Elizabeth McCracken got together and made a pact not to have children in order to devote themselves to their art. Actually of the four, I believe only McCracken did end up with kids. As much as this story is likely completely false (according to Ann Patchett, it is — I asked her during an interview, since she has an essay about not wanting children in her most recent collection, and she just laughed.) Nonetheless, it’s a fascinating story and it was somewhere in my head when I “lied” about my own childbearing history in the above. I bet a real fiction writer could do something interesting with this pact idea.
And no, I’ve never been to India, but my college boyfriend did leave me for a German girl named Zenzi.