Women bristle at each other differently than men do. With men, there is a palpable threat of underlying physicality just waiting for a dare.
With women, there is more of a defensive mode; a stony closing in; a self-protection against heart-hurt that lurks, waiting for a truth that cannot be borne. Or so it is in my experience, in my family. We were an intellectual family, promoting rationality, abhorring violence.
Mother stood beside the head of her bed. Kay was standing at the base of it. Their eyes were locked, unmoving, while behind the eyes there was a rapid and minute inspection of each other going on and a long, interminable silence that lasted at least two minutes.
“I’d heard…” ventured Mother.
“Heard what?” defied Kay.
“…heard that you had had an abortion.” It came out painfully. All defensive walls were already up. There was only an arrow-slit window left into her watchful soul. With her mother’s sensitivity, her lie detector was on, full volume.
“You heard wrong,” said Kay. Her voice was equally guarded; her face did not change. She stood a little taller. Only the eyes, still locked with her mother’s, equally searched for the slightest change in her mother’s facial expression that would give a clue of whether the answer had been accepted as given. They could not stay like this forever frozen in time until eternity, waiting for the other’s eyes to drop.
Kay dipped slightly to pick up the afghan that served to decorate the bed. It was the final item that needed to be straightened before the bed was done up for the day. Her eyes did not flinch; but the motion was enough. Mother moved towards the afghan and picked up another corner of the knitted blanket. The move had been made on both sides . A signal that the statement had been made and would be accepted for now, was left for minutious inspection like a sacrifice made at the Oracle in Delphi, later
The motion had broken the tension. In silence, they pulled the blanket straight, smoothed bumps and wrinkles, aligned the top edge parallel to the base of the bedstead and tucked in the bottom. Women’s work.
Kay could not fathom her mother’s credence. Would she accept it or wouldn’t she? Mother would never let her know. All the the things that had been unsaid in this short, but seemingly endless exchange coursed through Kay’s mind like a torrent.
“Shall we have a cup of tea?” said Mother. Mother’s guard had not dropped.
“Let’s,” said Kay. Neither had Kay’s.
But a cup of tea was motion. The kettle, the teapot, tea bag, a plate for a bite to eat. spoons, sugar and a small jug of cream. Like the measuring of blood pressure, the tight band squeezing, pinching the upper arm, the air seeping away and slowly releasing the pressure – so had our tension released then dissipated gradually, leaving only a diminishing memory of the sharp, temporary pain that had been allowed to reach the surface of the skin.
Not much was said over tea. Kay was eager to make it short and leave. Mother seemed to readily accept that.
It had been years, maybe ten, since Kay had found herself pregnant. How could it be so? With all the new contraceptives at one’s disposal, how could this have happened? With everything falling apart, with the marriage in shreds, with her job in question, how could this be added to the craziness? It was just too much.
Kay thought of Rosemary, that slender, freckled, auburn-haired friend who had brought her “Our Bodies, Ourselves” to read, that recently published women’s medical handbook. It was incredible, really, that the taboos of women’s health, the functioning of one’s own body, could be exposed in print for women to read and understand. Kay had had no explanations about her womanly functions from her mother. She devoured the pages greedily, nodding from time to time as light-bulbs lit up her understanding, mysteries uncloaked.
Kay remembered Sharon, the nightclub dancer. No, she had been a stripper and not shy to say so. Sharon had moved into the small town with her beautiful, youthful body, like a fury of destruction, guiltlessly sleeping with every man she met, ravaging marriage after marriage. It was ironic that Sharon had been the final straw in Kay’s relationship and at the same time the only one who had offered an escape to Kay’s dilemma. She knew a doctor who would perform an abortion, if need be.
Sharon and Kay left for North Vancouver, Kay driving, to Doctor X whose name Kay had, by now, these ten years later, completely forgotten. How convenient for Kay, she thought, that she had been born in this generation where abortions had so recently become legal. She would have been pilloried. Her friend Nan, in university, only four years earlier had had an illegal abortion at one of those back door places and it had changed her forever.
Nan had clammed up and never spoken an unnecessary word since. Not to her mother. Not to me. Not to any friend. She wouldn’t eat. She had wasted away, locked in her room by her own choice, to the utter distraction of her mother who, it seemed, never knew what had wrought such a swift and terrible change on Nan.
Her thoughts in turmoil, Kay considered her options. Having a baby did not seem to be one of them. She was falling apart as was her marriage, if you could call it that. She’d barely seen him lately unless he was bringing home his ragtag collection of hangers-on all eager for free dope or booze that had become his modus operandi. Either she was completely alone for huge amounts of time at home or overwhelmed by a houseful of partying people she did not want in it. How could she raise a baby in these conditions? How could she have a baby and work to support it at the same time? She was losing her mind and her job at the same time. How was she to cope? Her whole world was catastrophically caving in.
And what kind of baby would she have, anyway? Kay hadn’t exactly refused to smoke or ingest some of the drugs that had freely walked in and out of her hippie household with her husband and entourage. Would it be deformed? Brain damaged? How had she gotten into this situation, she berated herself. More to the point, how could she get out of it?
The doctor was a woman, kindly and sympathetic. The pregnancy test was positive. She explored Kay’s reasons for wanting an abortion and Kay spilled out her miserable collection of dilemmas in reply. An appointment for the abortion was set not so many weeks away. Timing was critical.
In an odd turn of thought, Kay left the office elated. She could conceive! She was a woman!
That night, without advance warning, Kay went to find her friend Lina in Richmond to stay the night. Kay could no longer go home to Mother. How could she? Mother was so uprighteous and religious. Mother must never know of this or she would never speak to Kay again. Nor would Father. Kay was doing the unthinkable. It had to remain an ugly secret locked up forever. Only now, too late, did she understand her university friend, Nan.
Lina welcomed her in without question. They talked an hour with no limits before Lina said, “I’m working tomorrow. I’ve got to go to bed. Anything in the fridge you want is yours. Stay a day, stay a week; the choice is yours. Here’s a key so you can go in and out. Just drop it in the mail slot if you decide to leave. I’ll see you tomorrow afternoon.”
During that week, Kay barely slept, ideas elbowing and jostling like in a swarming train station, in her brain. Kay desperately wished and prayed for a miscarriage. Kay tried to induce a natural one with extreme yoga and other exercises. Kay pounded her abdomen trying to chase the unwelcome incubus from her womb.
Kay considered throwing herself down stairs but never could quite commit to the other permanent ills and hurts that she might invoke by doing so. She considered various means of self-destruction – slit wrists, poison, drowning – and rejected them all. They were all too messy, too painful or too ugly to leave behind for other people to clean up. And besides, it wasn’t her that she wanted gone, it was her problems – and this little growing thing that would be, by half, the product of this ugly relationship gone wrong and the man whom she now loathed.
And so it was, weeks later, that Kay sat in the doctor’s office, taking another pregnancy test, just before the intended operation.
“Why do I have to do this again?” Kay asked the doctor a bit querulously.
“Because I have to verify if you really are pregnant. ”
Kay sat waiting in turmoil. All the women’s magazines seemed frivolous, stupid really. Her eyes cursorily scanned the other patients. Were they there for the same reason? She continued to inspect the others, too numb to inspect herself inwardly.
“This test says that you are not pregnant.” the doctor informed her, “but we are going to go through a little procedure, a D and C. You say you haven’t had any bleeding but if you have miscarried, I’d like to make sure that we have removed any tissue that might have remained. It will be more certain that way.”
She left with a certain amount of glee. How it had happened, she did not know. Whether the first test had been inaccurate Had she been pregnant at all? or had she naturally aborted, miscarried, There had been no evidence of it, she did not know. She did not have to have an abortion. That was how her mind read it.
But here, ten years after, all these events came flooding back into Kay’s mind as she stared at her Mother who was inspecting her for a sign. What, really, was the difference between a D&C and an abortion? Had she really been pregnant? Even Kay could not say, and so she had been able to hold her Mother’s gaze, albeit guardedly. All of this was sitting on the razor’s edge of truth waiting to be cut, one way or another.