When I was nineteen, I had an abortion. Biologically this is impossible. Psychologically it is factóimmutable as stone, and I canít see it any other way.
In theory, men stand on the outside of the abortion debateómere sympathizers, unable to empathize with the decision and everything it entails. In practice, however, that is not the experience of young would-have-been fathers. These arenít the coat-hanger years; this is the era of the clinic. As much as the gentleman in me would like to defer, as much as decorum demands I leave myself out of it, thereís no other way to look at the past decade of my life. I was a part of this. Divide by two if you want, but I was still there.
For the first eight years after it happened, every baby I passed would remind me of what weíd done. But then, two years ago, I was smoking a cigarette outside a store in SoHo when a father walked by carrying his son on his shoulders. I watched the little boy: he talked happily as he played with his dadís hat. My kid would be about that age now, I thought. That was the first time Iíd allowed the child to grow, admitted to myself that it would have travelled forward through time. That was also the first time I cried for the life left behind.
I know how it happened. I know the exact time. My girlfriend was visiting me at college for a week. We trolled the campus, she met my friends. She got tea whenever I went to class, we ate our dinners at the sixty-five-seat restaurant in town, the only one around for nine miles. And throughout the week, we had sex. Protected sex.
On the night before she left, we were laying in bed, wrapped around each other, talking quietly. She was running her hand down my stomach and into the hair down there, just touching the skin. I started to respond. There were no condoms left. I found myself there, hovering between her legs, in love and pausing, wanting. We didnít talk about it. We had been together for five years; there was no need to. It was only once. This would be the only time. That was how it happened. That simply.
The moment she told me she was pregnant, I was no longer a young adult making semi-sound decisions with the woman he loved. I became a kid again, and I was scared shitless.
ìWhat do you want to do?î she asked.
ìItís your body,î I told her. ìItís your decision. Whatever you want to do, I will be with you.î
ìDonít chicken out on me like that. This isnít my decision. This is between us. Youíre a part of it. I want to know what youíre thinking.î
We talked. There were no lists drawn up, no pros and cons, no rational, clinical dissection of the situation. By the end, we were finishing each otherís sentencesóthe simple telepathy between two people who know damn near everything about each other. It became all or nothing. Adoption was not discussed. We would either go through with the pregnancy, quit school, get whatever jobs we could, marry and try to take it from thereóor we would not keep it at all.
We chose the latter.
Once we did, I wanted to be by her side for every moment of the procedure. I wanted this to happen to us equally. But all I could experience were the psychological effects. She was the one who would have to lay on the cold leather-topped table, naked from the waist down. She would have to put her feet in the stirrups and, a cloth draped over her spread legs, feel the metal separate her, feel the scraping in her uterus. She would be alone when it most mattered. My place, then, was wherever she would allow; Iíd stand as close as sheíd let me. From there, I could strain to reach her, try to get her to look me in the eyes, to bring up old familiar stories, recount how we met and fell in love, remind her how she enjoyed shifting the gears as I droveóbut the simple fact that she was living out what I was witnessing left us with different experiences, different reactions, far apart from one another.
I took a train from New York City to Stamford, Connecticut, where there was a clinic. Her mother had flown in to be with her, and they had already been up there for a few days. They told me over the phone to be ready the following morning at six.
I was staying in a nearby hotel, probably a recommendation from a family friend in the area. The building was small and L-shaped, with balconies and a tiny front office that had no visible door. To check in, I stood outside a clear, bulletproof window, which had a sliding metal gate to accommodate transactions.
ìHow many hours do you want it for?î the man asked. I stared at him. He cocked his head. I didnít know how to answer. ìYou want a room for the night?î
The room was tiny and rank. The bed had a plastic slip, the kind given to kids who wet the bed, and a thin, tattered sheet that wasnít long enough to fold under the mattress. I didnít sleep. I lay down on the floor, paced around, tried to read, put on my Walkman. I had her number and thought briefly of calling, but I knew she didnít want to hear from me.
At three in the morning, there was a knock at my door. A woman was standing there in a bra with torn straps held together by safety pins. I remember she smelled of vanillañcoconut oil. A large man stood behind her. I donít think the family friend had known that this was a hooker hotel, and I hadnít noticed. Somewhere in the week leading up to the trip, Iíd stopped noticing peripheral things.
ìWhat do you want?î asked the woman.
ìI donít want anything,î I said.
ìItís not much. You donít have to worry about that.î
ìI donít have anything. Iím not here for that. Iím just trying to sleep.î
ìReally, no. Okay?î
ìWhat are you, a cop or something?î
ìNo, Iím not a cop! Do I look like a fucking cop?î
The guy perked up a bit and said, ìEasy, fellaî over her shoulder. He looked me in the eye, and I guess he could tell something was wrong. ìLetís leave the kid alone. He just needs to get some sleep. Weíll tell them not to bother the room. Take it easy, kid.î
For the rest of the night, I moved around the room in a daze. I kept parting the shades and unparting them. Finally, at six in the morning, a beige car pulled up with my girlfriend in the backseat. When I came out, her mother was standing by the curb and she hugged me hello. I held on a little too long and then climbed in. As we drove along the unfamiliar streets, I offered my girlfriend a sip from my water bottle.
ìCan I drink water so soon before?î She looked at me, directly at me. I could see her lip tremble, her eyes glazed over.
ìCan I drink water before Ö an Ö abortion?î
I wanted so badly for there to be protesters at the clinic. I imagined being called a ìbaby killer,î pictured someone stepping out from the imaginary crowd, confronting my girlfriend, spitting in her face and shouting, ìWhore!î Thatís when I would react, throw the person across the parking lot, defend her bravelyóand defend myself, too. I wanted to do something right, to act in a way that would prove I was more than a bystander.
The clinic turned out to be a nice, safe little place, nestled between office buildings, on a road lined with trees, cafÈs and mom-and-pop dry cleaners. While my girlfriend checked in and filled out forms, her mother walked across to where I stood. ìLook, she doesnít want you back there with her. She doesnít want you to be a part of it. I told her you had every right to be here, and that, before itís all over, she may find she wants you around, but she doesnít want you in there with her.î I stared after them as they passed through the doors. We had been together for five years, had talked about getting married after college, never really had a fight, never experienced emotional distance and now, she didnít want me around.
When her mother returned, she offered me a seat near her on the couch, but I couldnít take it. I sat across the room, between two couples. The one to my right sat and whispered, the man placing his hand on the womanís stomach. The couple to my left kept tabs on their son who was running around the room. Some time later, the doctor entered.
ìEverything went fine,î the doctor said to her mother. ìSheís resting right now and will be in a bit of pain. She asked to see Jarret. Is one of you Jarret?î
ìIíll show you the way back.î
When I entered the room, she was lying on a bed, with a paper blanket covering her legs and lap.
ìHi,î I said. ìIím sorry, I Ö I can go if Ö But the doctor said Öî
She looked over at me and held out her hand. I went and took it and just stood there. I looked at her until she pulled me down and hugged me. Everything that had gone unsaid until then came out in tears and sorrys and I love yous and sorrys and so very sorrys.
A few weeks later, we were driving away from New York for the weekend. It was mostly overcast, but when the car passed through the sunlight, I couldnít help but notice the dust on the dashboard. I tried to clear it away, first with my hand, then with my water bottle. Then I tried to clear away the water lines. Erase them, eradicate them.
ìWould you stop?!î
I wiped the damp sleeve on my thigh.
ìNo no no no!î she said. ìStop moving. Stop talking. Can you just stop, please?î
ìWhat the fuck is wrong with you?î
ìNothing. I just donít want you to talk. I donít want you to move. If you would just pull to the side of the road, then we could just go to sleep.î
I remember the feel of the gas pedal, light under my foot, and thinking that, if I just kept pressing harder, the car would speed up to eighty miles per hour. I pictured driving into the metal divide, watching the glass splinter into a thousand prisms. I wanted music, sound, yelling, distraction, a car crash. She wanted nothing but for all of it to never have happened.
She turned to look at me for what seemed like the first time in weeks. ìWill we be all right after this?î She smiled at me out of the corner of her mouth. I didnít answer her then. I wanted to tell her that we would be fine, that five years donít end like this, but I could not force the words past my mouth.
There are very few things in life that require direct experience before someoneís allowed to have an opinion about them. Abortion, for me, is one of these things. Unless youíve been through it, unless you know from personal and visceral experience what itís like, I donít want to hear a word out of your mouth.
There are those who disagree. Someone recently directed me to the National Silent No More Awareness Campaign, a group that describes itself as ìan effort to make the public aware of the devastation abortion brings to women, men, and their families. The emotional and physical pain of abortion will no longer be shrouded in secrecy and silence, but rather exposed and healed.î I liked all of this, but then came the predictable conclusion: ìThis effort is a key to make abortion unthinkable and persuade society that women deserve better than abortion.î
Is abortion unthinkable? Clearly not. Could my story be used to persuade others to avoid abortion? I suppose soóif you ignore the fact that there are people who donít struggle with this decision as I have, as well as people for whom an abortion marks the difference between ruin and salvation. And then there are the women who absolutely need one for medical reasons.
When we made the decision, I had to confront some basic and sad facts. She and I both came from loving families that would have supported us in any way possibleóbut I would not have been able to be a father to that child, at least not in the way I understood fatherhood. My dad likes to tell me that our time on earth is made up of an unrelenting series of failures (be they tiny or monumental), and that who one is can be measured in how one responds in those moments. Although he is an accomplished man, he frequently says there is only one thing heís ever considered himself a success at: being a father. Thatís what he says, and itís hard, as his son, to argue with him.
Iím not proud of our decision to have an abortion, but it was ours to make, and it has been ours to deal with. As well-intentioned as its members may be, the National Silent No More Awareness Campaign promotes a misguided philosophy. Fundamentally, the group exploits the universal sense of regret felt by anyone who goes through this, be it temporary or drawn out over time. Their manipulation of another personís pain takes an issue with a thousand facets, experiences, facts, many of which contradict each other, and removes all but the one that suits them. Itís not the intention I disagree with, itís the removal of anything real or human; itís the oversimplification that I find offensive.
When it comes to pregnancy, there are two choices: carry the child to term or end the pregnancy. I am not wholly the product of our choice, but it has left an indelible imprint. Opponents of abortion forget the hardest question. Not, is what we did wrong? but, if I have a kid in the future, what do I owe to the one I left behind? How do I honour that?
She and I spoke on the phone recently. Sheís engaged to be married now.
Aside from memories conjured by random kids, there is one thing about that time that still bothers me a decade later. For years after, I believed she hated me because it was the easiest thing to doóI was the only other person in the room. Maybe she hated me because, in the sum total of our time together, when she added up the benefits and weighed them against the shit and the pain and the hurt, she figured that sheíd actually lost more than sheíd gained.
I asked her about this very thing, and she thought for a little bit before answering.
ìI donít know. I know that I hated you for a long time, that I blamed you for all of it. But I also know I did that because I could, because I didnít want to blame myself. Maybe I took the easy way out, but it was the only way I could cope. I donít hate you anymore, and my memories of those five to six years are some of the best of my lifeÖSo maybe Iím beginning to put all this in a more natural place. I know this: If we were able to just talk from time to time, every now and then, I wouldnít consider it the worst thing in the world.î
And thatís why, despite every skin-surface, conflicting emotion within me, I cannot say that I regret what happened.