The Sunday Rumpus Essay: Happy Birthday

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I was in the bathroom of a CVS with my best friend, Kaitlyn, when I first discovered I was pregnant. It was a Wednesday in early May of 2005 and I was sixteen. Moments earlier, Kaitlyn asked me to wait in the handicapped stall while she purchased the pregnancy test—because I was too embarrassed. She bought one of the expensive, digital ones—the kind that declares either “pregnant” or “not pregnant” in actual words, just to be sure—and handed it to me under the stall door.

I peed on the stick, capped it, and handed it back to her to wait for the results. I focused on buttoning up my jeans and readjusting the placement of my bra. It felt scratchy and somehow misshapen. I unfolded the pamphlet of instructions that came with the test and pretended to read them over. I couldn’t manage to focus my eyes, though, even for a cursory scan. They kept flitting back across the room, evaluating my friend, her face. In those brief moments I considered, to the best of my ability, the possibility of becoming an adult. I thought about whether that prospect excited or frightened me. At the time, even the act of taking a pregnancy test was one that I deemed rebellious. I was not one of those kids who were known to hang out beneath the lone tree in the parking lot of our high school smoking cigarettes after class. I never wrote the answers to tests on my arm or made up excuses about missed assignments. I was a kid who just wanted, above all things, to assert myself as distinct and alive. I wanted my existence to feel meaningful, and I didn’t want that to mean I was “bad,” even if I sometimes had sex.

“Does it say anything yet?” I finally asked.

Kaitlyn looked up at me with strange eyes, the kind that had been caught completely off guard and were still glazed in disbelief. “Yes,” she said. Then she let her hand drop to show the test’s result. Pregnant.

I stood, expressionless.

Kaitlyn took a deep breath and then surged into action. “Okay, we are going to get rid of this thing,” she said, and she threw the stick into the trash. She grabbed my hand, “Let’s go.”

For a moment, I still had a lingering hope—the hope that somehow this situation could end as if it had never begun—but within seconds that feeling was gone. What replaced it was reality, the kind I had never yet faced on my own.

I followed my friend outside and climbed into the front seat of my yellow Nissan Xterra. I couldn’t pull my thoughts together; I couldn’t even muster an emotion. I felt the absence and presence of breath in my lungs. I felt the humid air condense into droplets on my cheeks. I stared at the steering wheel. I felt senseless. I was in shock.

“I think you should stay at my house tonight,” Kaitlyn said. Even though it was a school night, she knew that I could stay out. I spent the night with my dad on Wednesdays, and he was never home. He was a drug addict who didn’t really care what I did. Even if dad did happen to be home, he’d stay locked away in his room, which had once been the garage. It was doubtful I would see or hear from him. His TV would blare down the hallway, I might hear his roaring cough as I fixed myself a sandwich in the kitchen, but then the blinds on his door to the driveway would slam into the glass panel, and just like that he’d be gone.

“No, I just want to be by myself,” I said.

After that we sat for a moment. My thoughts streamed past me like cars in a time-lapsed photo. I saw myself, swollen and tired, walking the halls of my high school—where I had never before heard even the whisper of a pregnant student. I saw the disappointed faces of passersby at the mall and movie theater. I saw my grandmother’s face. I felt the weight of my body pulling me down from the center as I grew, along with the weight of my infinite fears.

I fished my cell phone from my purse and stared at it in my hands.

“Are you going to call Kendall?” Kaitlyn asked.

She knew that Kendall was the father, but not, to my great disappointment, my boyfriend. Hard as I’d tried. Even though I had offered to wake up early and drive ten minutes out of my way to pick him up for school in the mornings, since both of his parents had work, and even though I had given him the keys to my car during class when he’d forgotten to bring an assignment, he remained a popular seventeen-year-old kid who didn’t want to commit. I had no regrets about him, regardless, only the stomach-hollowing guilt of having made the worst possible kind of mistake. The mistake was that we hadn’t used protection, and I knew better than that. Sex was not the mistake. If I’d never slept with Kendall, it would have been another boy. Sex was something I enjoyed. It was always my choice to offer my body; not because I thought it would change the way someone felt about me, but because of the way I felt.

When I got home to my dad’s house I took a steaming shower. I noticed distinctly the way the pressure of the water stung my nipples and I had to cover them with my arms. I noticed how I felt this new, sticky warmness in the texture of my skin, as if it was some kind of pastry. I got out of the shower and poured myself a Dr. Pepper on crushed ice, then I climbed into bed. I turned the TV on for company, but left the volume at a low, static hum. The light of it washed on and off my face. I felt the tight band of elastic on my pajama pants. I wasn’t any fatter yet, of course, but I felt the pants around me nonetheless, and couldn’t help but imagine them closing in on me.

I found myself thinking about the first time I’d learned about sex—when I was five or six years old. I remembered being in the bathroom of a department store with my Grammy and asking what the tampon dispenser was for.

“Why would a girl bleed like that?” I asked.

“It means you can have a baby,” she said.

“Well, how do you have a baby?”

The idea of having a baby was purely exciting to me then. I couldn’t exactly say why. When I learned about sex I was so enchanted by the thought of it that the very next week, while I was playing with a girl named Valerie from school, I decided to tell her I was going to have a baby. She said she didn’t believe me, but she told her mom anyway, unbeknownst to me.

The next day my paternal grandmother, Gran, picked me up from school.

“Let me ask you something,” she said cautiously. “Has a boy ever pulled his pants down in front of you?”

“No,” I said.

“Are you sure? It’s okay to tell me. You know that, right?”

“Yes, I’m sure.”

“Well one of your friends at school said that you told her a boy tried to hurt you. Do you know it’s not ever okay for a boy to pull his pants down in front of you?”

“Yes.”

“Well I hope you would tell your Gran if something like that happened. You wouldn’t get in trouble, okay?”

I started to cry and said, “Okay.”

The questions did not end there. Gran figured that my crying meant I was trying to hide something. Of course, I was only trying to hide my shame. I had the same conversation with my mother, and then with her mother, my Grammy. There was talk of me seeing a counselor. At school, I told Valerie how embarrassed I was. She told me I was a liar. She said her mom was proud of her for doing the right thing, and that we couldn’t hangout anymore.

Was it wrong for me to be interested in sex? Was it so unusual, at my young age, to tell that kind of lie? I felt very much like it was, so I never confessed to my family. At first, I had figured that everyone who knew about sex must be fascinated by it, but none of my friends wanted to talk about it; they said they weren’t allowed to. I now wonder: would the same thing have happened if I’d been a boy?

Rumors began to spread about me and I was shunned by my friends. Some boys even got wind of the story and pulled my pants down on the playground. I didn’t tell anyone. Later that year, at summer camp, a boy threatened to kick me in the penis for not moving fast enough in line. I told him I didn’t have a penis; he said he didn’t believe me. He asked the counselor if it was true that girls didn’t have a penis, but she was young—probably only sixteen or so—and she said she couldn’t answer. Then he and some of the other boys made fun of me and called me “the girl without a penis.” None of the other girls said anything.

At that time I started to understand there was something people found horribly wrong and shameful about sex; something Grammy hadn’t mentioned in the department store. Nobody liked to talk about it. Sex made people nervous, and sometimes it made them angry. I realize, now, that I was a child, and in a sense it was understandable that no one knew how to address the topic with me, but their silence confused and upset me. I started to feel like I made people nervous and angry, too. After all, I was a product of sex, and my parents didn’t even like each other. I had never so much as seen them together in all my memory. I felt unusual for wanting to know more about sex, and therefore I felt undesirable.

Yet, despite what other people thought, I still liked the idea of sex. I can’t explain why it attracted me—I truly had no experience aside from the single lie I told and the traumatic events that ensued—but I liked it. I liked to think about it.

When I got older, I discovered that I liked having sex, too. It didn’t make me feel slutty or misused, the way I had been warned it would. In fact, when I began having sex it made me complete in a new kind of way. I felt physically happy and wanted, yes, but I also felt closer to myself. I understood myself. My desires seemed natural and made sense to me. By the time I got to high school, I didn’t think that sex was shameful at all. I realized it was still considered both rebellious and bad, but I decided that perhaps the people who felt that way weren’t having enough of it. I happily lost my virginity before any of my friends did—when I was barely fifteen, and my boyfriend, Danny, was eighteen. He never pressured me. He never asked me to. I just wanted to have sex.

I remember the way Danny frowned at me when I told him I was ready, “Are you sure?”

I said, “Yeah, I’m sure.”

He got on top of me in my bed and we pulled the covers over us. My mom was just downstairs. I remember the warmth of his body between my thighs; it was the most exhilarating sensation.

I didn’t do drugs or drink at the time, like many of my friends already did—my dad did drugs, and I didn’t want to be like him. I made straight A’s in school; I took guitar lessons on Tuesdays; I sang in a private voice studio on Mondays and Thursdays and went to competitions across the state on weekends. I didn’t, in other words, consider myself to be problematic, at least not in the way that I thought the kids who smoked pot and ran away from home were. I just enjoyed having sex.

When I fell for Kendall, a junior visual art major at our high school, a magnet for the performing and visual arts, I enjoyed photo 2having sex with him, too—even though he wasn’t my boyfriend. He was a year older and attractive; he was in a band that played at a few different clubs around town; girls stared at him in the hallway. I liked that, and I liked that he liked me. By this time I understood that I was a sexual person by nature, and I was okay with that. Other kids would get fucked up to be cool; I didn’t have sex to be cool. I didn’t care whether anyone knew that I had sex or who I had sex with. What I wanted was that moment of awareness, the physical assertion of my life, my existence. Sex wasn’t just a good time for me; it was an affirmation of something divine.

I tried to remember that feeling as I sat, alone at my dad’s house and pregnant. But the freedom I’d felt had completely vaporized—vanished in a puff of smoke like a cartoon character’s dream—and the thought of telling my mother only reminded me of those horrific interrogations I’d been through as a kid. I remembered how disgusting it felt to talk about sex with a grownup. No part of this was enchanting. No part of this was the way I’d imagined it would be. And I couldn’t even ponder, for the moment, whether I’d actually want to have a child. I could only think about myself, and what people would think of me, and how my body would change, and how I could no longer do the things I liked to do. I wasn’t prepared to be a mother; I was still a sixteen-year-old kid.

The next day at school I went to the bathroom and called Planned Parenthood—the only place I’d heard of that could tell you where to get an abortion. I asked if I could have one without telling my parents. I tried to keep my voice at the lowest audible whisper, but it ricocheted off the tile and multiplied itself nonetheless.

“Only if you go to court and a judge says it’s OK,” the operator told me. “You just have to tell the judge why it would be dangerous for your parents to find out—will they hurt you if you tell them?”

My parents would never hurt me; I could not lie about that, but, more importantly, I knew that I didn’t have the time for court. I didn’t know what would happen if the judge didn’t accept my claim—by then I might be too far along to have any alternative options, at least not any options that I, as a teenager, thought would turn out okay. I was scared and I couldn’t hold it in. My fear was bubbling over like boiling water from a pot. I had to tell my mom. She was coming up to the school to drop something off in the office that day, and I decided to tell her then. I sent a text-message asking her to meet me outside.

When she arrived, mom and I sat on the cold concrete steps in front of my school. Her brow was furrowed, as usual. She placed a hand on my knee and said, “What is it, Honey? Are you okay?” I could tell that she was worried, but it also seemed like she was already angry. My conscience and worry were blinding me.

I blurted the news out in one sentence: No build-up, no beating around it. I said it quietly and started to cry. “Mom, I’m pregnant.”

“What?” mom said.

“I’m pregnant.”

Her jaw visibly clenched and her eyes filled with tears. “I can’t believe this,” she said. “I am calling the doctor right now. You’re going to have an abortion.” She didn’t ask me questions, like when or with whom it happened. She didn’t mention the trouble I was inevitably in. Nothing. She didn’t take me out of school or try to soothe my concern—not that I thought I deserved it. Instead, she called the doctor while I sat on the steps. When she got off the phone she said, “I’ll see you when you get home,” and then she walked away. It was her lack of reaction—the nothingness—that unnerved me to the bone. I could have predicted any lecture my mom could have given, but this I didn’t see coming. There was a graveness to it I had never felt before, and yet, paradoxically and simultaneously, I also felt like I’d been stung by it for years. Sex is bad and wanting it is wrong. We’re not going to talk about it.

I sat on the steps for a few moments watching her drive away. Then I stood, still feeling terrified and confused, and headed back to class.

*

On May 27th mom took me to have an abortion. I was about eight weeks along by then. It was, in a strange coincidence, my sister Carina’s 5th birthday, which made the occasion more grotesque. On the wall in the dining room, behind the table, hung a colorful, glittering banner exclaiming, “Happy Birthday!” I felt as if it had been placed there on purpose, as a cruel irony meant to hurt me. Kids ran up and down the halls, shrieking with excitement. My mom passed around paper plates of cake, which they ate with their hands and left smeared on their faces. Relatives mingled in the kitchen. No one else in my family knew. At least, no one else knew yet. Mom didn’t want anyone talking her out of taking me to the clinic.

I’m still not sure what I would have done if left to my own devices. Despite my initial attempt to contact Planned Parenthood in an effort to conceal my mistake, I suspect I probably would have had the baby if it really came down to it. The thought of abortion weighed heavy on me, and despite my love of physical affection, I was not oblivious to the severe and dire consequences that loomed before me. I realized that a life, perhaps even two lives, now hung in the balance. I’m thankful that I didn’t have to choose.

As we approached the clinic, my mom and I were greeted by protesters. One man, a young attractive blonde, handed me a pink and white rosary made of plastic. He said that I could tell him if this wasn’t what I wanted. He said my mom would go to hell. I followed her inside without saying a word. It was the first time I ever felt anger towards politics or religion. My mom was already afraid for us, and I hated to see her suffer. She believed in the God they were talking about. She believed we might go to hell.

Inside there was a girl, younger than I was, arguing with the woman behind the desk. Her stomach was already showing. She was there with her boyfriend and his uncle, and she’d been told that she couldn’t end her pregnancy without having one of her parents present. She said, “Why can’t his uncle sign for me? He knows me better anyway.” She pleaded with the desk clerk and sobbed through her hands, swearing that she couldn’t tell her parents. Mom and I sat quietly and waited. I tried not to stare.

The first time my name was called, I was led to a small loft area to talk to a female counselor. The walls and floor were lamp-lit and wooden. The stuffed chairs had green upholstery. The counselor asked, “Do you understand the procedure you’re having today? And are you okay with it?”

“Yes,” I said. She had a friendly, open face and spoke very gently to me. At some point she changed the subject and asked about my friends and school. She wanted to remind me that I was just a normal girl, that nothing was wrong with me. It was the first time I had ever felt assured in that sense, and it was a relief, even during that difficult time. At the end of my counseling session, when she asked if I had any questions, I said, “What exactly are they going to do?”

They were going to put me to sleep and put a vacuum in me.

The second time my name was called they took me to have a sonogram.

“Would you like to hear the heartbeat?” the woman asked. She wasn’t the same woman who’d counseled me.

“Sure,” I said, and I listened to the heartbeat. I saw it on the screen. I really didn’t have a choice.

When I think back on that moment, I remember the terrible, echoing sadness that emanated from those sounds in my belly, but at the time I could not differentiate that feeling from the myriad losses I had carried with me over the course of the past eight weeks.

“Would you like to have a picture to take home?”

“Sure,” I said. Deep down I wanted some kind of tangible memory, a proof that all of this had really happened. They gave me a black and white photo of water, and within it there was space where a part of me had once been.

photo-22

Next they took me to have my blood tested, though I wasn’t sure why. They squeezed and pinched my finger until my vision became spotted and blurry, like little gnats floating past on an oily surface. They asked me questions about my medical history: One heart virus, one kidney stone, and one bite from a brown recluse. I had asthma and might be anemic. I wasn’t allergic to medicine. I’d never been put to sleep before.

Lastly, I was taken into the surgery room. They gave me a paper gown and said to lay down with my feet in the stirrups once I had it on. The doctor and nurse would then come in and put me to sleep as they started the procedure.

As I lay there waiting for the doctor, cold with my legs spread apart, I’d never felt more exposed and ashamed. The thought of someone touching me was excruciating. My body was now an emptiness, a contrast of negative space. I had become the exact absence of a warm body between my legs, an arm gripping the arch of my back. The lack of all things sacred. I broke into a sweat.

And yet, when the nurse came in with needle in hand and said, “Think of your favorite memory. Now count backwards from ten,” my mind flipped backwards past the days when I’d flung myself, exhausted, on the couch to sleep after school. “9, 8, 7…” I hurried past the memories of rising, sick and sweating,  to shower at seven o’clock. “6, 5, 4…” And past the whispers in the hall accompanied by quick, appraising glances. “3, 2…” Just as my eyes began to shut, heavy like drawn curtains, I arrived, at last, to the pleasure of my skin meeting Kendall’s skin in the shower. “1.” Steam rising from our bodies. It wasn’t something I’d forget, or ever even want to. It took me light-years from that table and its metal fastenings, back to the freedom of having myself, and the choice to give freely of myself.


Mag Gabbert is currently a PhD student in creative writing at Texas Tech University, and previously received her MFA from The University of California at Riverside. Her essays and poems have been published or are forthcoming in journals including 32 Poems, The Rattling Wall, The Rumpus, Sheepshead Review, The Nervous Breakdown, and The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review. She also serves an associate editor for Iron Horse Literary Review. More from this author →