NEW YORK — I had just turned 22 and had the self-esteem of a squashed toad. This may explain why I was having an affair with a married 36-year-old sound mixer whom I’d met on a film shoot. I’d had only one serious boyfriend by this time and recently had been asked for the first time, “Can I buy you a drink?” by a man. Somehow, by that tender age, I had convinced myself that I should take what I could get. So I took the married sound mixer.
And then, a few months later, I rolled out of bed at an unreasonably early hour and vomited.
This didn’t seem as big a problem to me as it might have for other young women. This was the mid-1990s. Reared on protest marches, I had a NOW poster affixed to my bedroom wall. I was an unwavering believer in the fierce rhetoric of pro-choice. In addition, in college I had essentially majored in experimental feminist video. I could make art out of anything.
I called a clinic on Park Avenue and made an appointment for the next day. I checked the price: $350 – slightly more than a week’s pay.
The money intimidated me, but the mission didn’t. Not only was this the right I’d marched for, it was an opportunity. It could provide material for the kinds of film I’d voraciously consumed in college, in which women transformed their most traumatic experiences into emotionally stirring and awareness-raising images: Margie Strosser’s “Rape Stories” or “The Body Beautiful” by Ngozi Onwurah, about a mother undergoing a radical mastectomy. An abortion today, a debut at Sundance tomorrow.
The next day a blizzard hit New York City, shutting down the trains. I called a car service and mentally added it to the bill I’d present to the married man when he returned from working on a film overseas. I stuffed my Ricoh Hi8 video camera in my backpack, and I went alone.
The driver was Middle Eastern, from some hot and weather-less country, but he did a fair job of steering into the skids. He kept asking me why I was going out in such weather.
“I have to go to the doctor,” I kept telling him.
“Why? You don’t look sick.”
“I have to have a procedure.”
“What? What procedure?”
Finally, I told him. Why not? I was proud and un-conflicted. I was exercising my right. I was making a video.
He pulled over to the side of the road, right there on the Brooklyn Bridge. “Please don’t kill the baby,” he said. “Please don’t kill the baby.”
“Keep driving! I have an appointment!” This was not part of the script.
“Please don’t kill the baby,” he said again, turning around. He had beautiful big brown eyes. “I will take care of you and the baby. I work two jobs.”
“Drive,” I told him.
He drove. The camera stayed off.
At the clinic’s counter, the receptionist asked me what I’d come for. I said, “Um …”
“Termination of pregnancy?” she asked in her best would-you-like-fries-with-that voice. I nodded.
They gave me pamphlets, a paper gown and paper slippers. They sat me in a room filled with women, one of whom told me she’d been there eight times before. “They used to have terry cloth,” she said, lifting her toes in the paper slippers. It had never occurred to me that people had serial abortions, but it confirmed my expectations: abortion – safe, legal, no big deal.
Yet as I looked around, my expectations began to shift. This wasn’t the liberating environment I’d expected. I wasn’t prepared for the saturnine cloudiness of the room, all those sad-looking women burying their faces in tabloid magazines.
Nurses led me and 10 other women into a room where they talked to us about our anesthetic options – local or general – and had us sign forms. Everyone opted for general except for me. “I want local,” I said. I showed the woman from the clinic my video camera. “I want to be awake, and I want to record it.” I said this with a now wavering smile.
She took me aside and informed me that I could not use my video camera in the operating room for legal reasons, and that they did not approve of local anesthesia.
“Why are you giving me the option, then?” I asked.
“We have to,” the woman said.
I was freezing inside my paper gown. I checked the “general” box on the form. I put the camera in my bag.
The first thing I thought when I awoke from the anesthesia was that I’d never be pregnant again, that I had squandered my only chance at motherhood. I was sobbing – I had arisen from the depths of the medication this way – as they rolled me into the recovery room where the other women were lying, almost all of them with a friend to brush their hair back or offer them ice chips. I could not stop crying, big heaves and gulps of it. The nurse came over at first to soothe me and then to quiet me.
“You’re upsetting the other girls,” she said.
She got the doctor. “Sometimes we have to massage the womb,” he said. This did not stop the crying, but eventually it stopped the pain.
At least, the physical pain. The begging cabdriver and the woman on her ninth abortion and the shocking suction in my womb: It was too traumatic for me to make art of. Or maybe I wasn’t a good enough artist to transform that level of trauma into something that others could learn from and use. I had been taught that a woman’s right to choose was the most important thing to fight for, but I hadn’t known what a brutal choice it was.
I knew then that I’d never be a filmmaker. But about motherhood, I was wrong. Fifteen years later, happily coupled with a wonderful man, I gave birth to my first daughter; I now have two. I don’t wish I had a 20-year-old. I didn’t want that baby, with that man. I’ll always support abortion rights, but even now, I wish the motto wasn’t “Never again,” but “Avoid this if there’s any way you possibly can, even if it’s legal, because it’s awful.” I wish that someone had alerted me to the harshness of the experience, acknowledged the layers of regret that built and fell away as the months and years passed. I want my daughters to have the option of safe and legal abortion, of course. I just don’t want them to have to use it.
The New York Times
Lisa Selin Davis is a writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.