After the abortion, her hunger walked back in the room. So her friend found a supermarket nearby, the kind with rows of clear canisters that expel unusual legumes. Inside, she paused a minute before a column of purple beans with bright yellow specks.
She fixed a big salad and ordered a hot sandwich with chips. She ate everything, apologizing between bites. Her friend told her she was being ridiculous. “Eat! Eat!” At one point, she noted lightly, “This is so normal.” Her friend, instead of nodding compassionately, said this thing that made her laugh. Then her laughter became a long, uncontained noise, ending with a sigh. She’d made the right decision, leaving her husband at home with the kids.
It was March, and before leaving she bought herself a bouquet of pussy willows. For no reason, she thought. She loved their shyness and displayed them in a cracked pitcher, moving it from room to room according to her mood. Her husband was glad when she finally added them to the compost, they reminded him of that day. Some details he could know only if he’d been the one. This hurt, but not too much.
Despite everything—the many years they’d been together, not the abortion—they were still in love. She held his gaze and told him, referring to the abortion, “No regrets.” It was an easy conversation. The same stuff offended them: racism, sexism, capitalism, waste. They’d sorted out their beliefs long ago. Also, it was legal. Also, it was her right.
Also, and most of all, they had just turned 40; they had moved past the stage of deep thinking. They’d wandered into the Age of Getting By. The kids were two, four, and five. On the horizon was elementary school, perhaps the Age of Appreciating What You Have. But not yet.
All day, the children hailed her with questions. Can I? When? Why not? And: Do you have to be so mean? And: What about tomorrow? And: This too? But why? Please? Only this time? Come on, please? Please? Please please please please please please please please please please please please please please please please please please please please please please please please please please please? She asked for enough silence to butter a tear of bread.
They moved on. The oldest boy had trouble breathing sometimes. The youngest liked to plunge her stuffed animals into the toilet. They fixed the toilet, and the gutters overtopped. The middle boy pulled his pants down in front of the neighbor’s kid. There were other things.
Then, one of the other things was her right breast. It started to leak at night, while they were sleeping. First a rivulet that tickled her armpit and later a real flow that soaked the sheets. “Are you okay?” her husband said, half-awake, patting the wet stain. She asked her doctor how this could be, there hadn’t even been a heartbeat. Certainly it takes a heartbeat to make milk. The doctor raised her eyebrows, in surprise or disagreement it wasn’t obvious, and explained, “Every body is different.” She carved the word in two like that: every body.
This frightened her, though it wasn’t meant to. She asked the doctor if it was true what certain people said, that her ovaries might turn into big, black tumors, her uterus could bleed out, in the end she might die. Fear brought the light of kindness into the doctor’s eyes. Surely she knew this was silly thinking? She said, “Yes, of course I do,” and, “I think I do.”
Her breasts stopped leaking, but now her uterus hurt every month. She had never been a woman who suffered cramps. The cramps were like labor, waves of pain that washed over her lower abdomen—a yes/no syntax she couldn’t ignore. Coincidentally, maybe, the nation had drifted toward a similar syntax. Newspapers predicted the ground below was going to cleave. After the cleaving was over, and people had swept away the rubble, she’d have to watch her door at night. No one could say she wouldn’t be handcuffed, locked away. There were warnings on bumper stickers; on the radio stations she clicked through; in the faces of mothers at her son’s preschool, where the children bowed their heads before snack time.
That was how guilt became a rabid dog, following her. She heard the doctor’s voice in her head—silly thinking—but it didn’t help repeating those words. Sometimes, in the Age of Getting By, the only way to get rid of an idea is to leave the country.
One morning, the kids were not bothering her. She called her mother. “You alone?” she said, a pointless question.
“What’s wrong?” Her mother’s reflexes were as sharp as ever.
She told her mother everything, beginning with the bad IUD and ending with the pussy willow. Although she was quiet about it, her mother was a Christian. She clenched her thighs and waited for her mother’s crying.
But her mother didn’t cry; her mother was her mother and wanted to make sure she was ok. Since the truth is the truth, she repeated what she’d said to her husband: “I’m fine, no regrets.” To her mother she also said, “It was self-preservation.” Because on her mind lately was her own history as a woman and the more complicated History of Women. She would have liked to say: How much could her body handle, how much could this body endure? Meaning, of course, not her body but her self (two words). Except it was bad form to go on this way with her own mother, a woman who had five kids and raised them alone.
Her mother assured her that she had known other women who felt the same and did the same and eventually didn’t think about it. Her mother said all this even though she was not just a Christian but a Catholic, who went to church and prayed when things were difficult. After the call she felt better, until she thought about things more—it was inevitable—and then she didn’t. What she thought about exactly was the blank metal door she walked through that morning in March. She thought about writing her name—here, here, here. She did not believe in the Father, the Son, any of that. Now she lay awake at night, wondering: Was there another word for what she’d done, an unspeakable word? Is this what her mother truly believed? Deep down, deeper than her heart, deeper than her stomach, deeper even than her vagina, which is where a woman’s love really begins, did her mother believe this? On top of the leaky breasts, the cramps, she started having bad dreams. It doesn’t take much to have a bad dream, just a word that won’t settle down.
That’s when she remembered. They said the Pope was a different kind of leader, a man whose heart bled. The next day she packed a suitcase and said goodbye to her children. “Eat lots of ice cream,” they called to her, their eyes shining, their own little bodies counting on her love.