Tuesday, September 16, 2014
By Liz Zuercher
Up the street from her house was a playground, a small tot lot really, where the kids in the neighborhood went with their moms or nannies or the occasional dad to play on weekdays. Cassie used to go up there sometimes on her days off, her Tuesdays and Wednesdays. She didn’t really want to talk to anyone there – she got enough talking in her job selling new homes. She just wanted to watch the kids play, see the joy in their faces and listen to their laughter. She ended up chatting with some of the moms, but when they found out none of the kids belonged to her, they began to keep their distance. People were so suspicious these days. They all thought someone was out to take their children or harm them in some way.
All she wanted to do was relax and watch the children play, but somehow that got twisted into something sinister. So she stopped going to the tot lot and spent Tuesday or Wednesday in her own condo on the balcony listening to the gentle gurgling of the water fountain she’d installed all by herself. She was happy and comfortable there, so it was no great loss not to feel welcome at the tot lot, but it made her sad not to be part of that innocent bit of neighborhood life.
As much as she knew about the ten or so neighborhoods she’d put together over twenty years of selling new homes, she knew almost nothing of the one she lived in. In her work neighborhoods she’d been in every home. She knew who lived in each house, how old they were, what they did for a living, how many children they had, what their pets’ names were, how much money they had in the bank, whether they liked wood, carpet, tile or stone on their floors, how they’d upgraded their new house, if they’d upgraded at all.
She knew if the husband was kind to the wife or if the wife belittled the husband behind his back. She knew what kind of parents they were. If they weren’t yet parents, she knew how hard they were trying or that they were too busy with their careers to have kids. She knew where they’d lived before the house she sold them. She knew whether they preferred coffee or tea with their cookies and if they liked the oatmeal raisin or the sugar cookies better. She knew if they’d had health issues or financial problems or if their parents were helping them out. She knew that one couple had paid cash, while another had financed everything.
She knew which kids were well behaved and which ones were going to terrorize the neighborhood like Little Chad Grissom. She knew which of her homebuyers would have their landscaping done right away and which ones would take a year to do it like Eddie Petrocelli.
She knew all this and more about every neighborhood she’d ever sold, but she didn’t even know her own next-door neighbor’s name.
Tuesday, July 22, 2014
By Liz Zuercher
After the baby, I decided to find my new path in life at community college. What I found was Patrick.
When it comes to Patrick, I should have paid more attention to Grandma Elsa’s saying, “If they don’t say hello, then you don’t have to say goodbye.” That one always bothered me, because I thought it seemed unfriendly. I couldn’t imagine a world where people shied away from others, just because they were afraid of caring, or rather because they were afraid they’d have to get hurt by needing to say goodbye. That sounded to me like it would make for a lonely life. I’d say that to Grandma and she’d come back with, “Better to be lonesome than sorry.” Grandma had a saying for everything. Like I said, I should have paid more attention.
Patrick Stevens was a charmer. He wasn’t necessarily handsome, but the minute he said hello to you, you thought he was the most appealing man alive. His looks were average, brown hair, brown eyes, medium build, medium height, and you wouldn’t notice him in a crowd. Maybe that’s what got him through life, that you didn’t notice what he was doing until it was too late. By the time you realized what had happened, he had slipped into a crowd and become anonymous again. But the residual Patrick left behind was anything but ordinary, anything but innocuous or anonymous.
I met Patrick in my English Lit class. He fancied himself a poet and the first time I took notice of him was when he raised his hand in class to read a poem out loud. He always sat behind me, so I hadn’t seen him before that day. I didn’t look at him even then until he started reading the poem. His voice was so smooth, so emotional that I couldn’t help taking my eyes off of my poetry anthology to look around at the person who belonged to that voice. Patrick’s voice said hello to me first in that poetry reading, and I felt something stir in me that I hadn’t felt since Billy. It scared me, but it enticed me, too.
I stared at him as he read and kept looking at him after he had spoken the final word. The class was as enchanted as I was. Everyone was quiet for a long moment, including the instructor, a middle aged woman who seemed to have no passion for her work or for the literature we were studying. She broke the spell.
“Thank you, Mr. um,” she looked at her roster.
“Stevens,” he volunteered. “Patrick Stevens.”
“Yes, well, thank you for a most heartfelt reading, Mr. Stevens,” she said.
Reluctantly, I turned back to face the instructor as we started discussing the poem Patrick had read to us. I don’t remember a thing about that discussion. I only remember feeling like I had to know Patrick Stevens, and I made up my mind to introduce myself after class.
We became inseparable. We studied together, ate our meals together, and before too long we were sleeping together. And yes, I had learned my lesson and was taking the pill. I’d had enough of unplanned pregnancy. But I was giddy in my infatuation with Patrick, and I was sure I had found my perfect soul mate.
Mary McCarthy, on the other hand, didn’t care for Patrick, and she made no effort to mask her displeasure whenever he entered her house or popped in at Mandala. It started to become a sore point between us. I felt uncomfortable having Patrick over, and I definitely didn’t feel right having him spend the night. Patrick lived near campus in an apartment with three other guys, and I found myself spending more and more time there.
When I’d come back to Mary’s after having spent the night with Patrick, I would get a look from Mary that clearly expressed how she felt. But the way I felt was, what right did she have to question what I did? She wasn’t my mother, and I wasn’t accountable to her. I paid her rent for the room and I worked at her store. Sure, she had helped me out when I really needed help, but there was no blood tie between us. Things got more and more tense.
One Sunday morning we had it out. I had come in after spending Friday and Saturday nights with Patrick, and I went into the kitchen to get a bite to eat. Mary was sitting at the kitchen table, reading the paper and drinking her coffee. She looked up at me with a smirk on her face, the one I’d seen often lately, the one that had replaced her usual beautiful broad smile.
“Well look what the cat dragged in,” she said.
“Good morning, Mary,” I said, opening the refrigerator door and staring inside for something to eat. I thought I was being cheerful and nice, but for some reason she took offense.
“Don’t good morning me, Missy,” she said.
“I just said good morning. What’s wrong with that?” I asked.
“If you’re not sleepin’ here, ya don’t have the right to say good morning,” she said.
That didn’t make sense to me. I didn’t recognize this Mary, and I sure didn’t like her tone. I couldn’t figure out what I’d done wrong. I felt like I was back in Colfax and my father was raking me over the coals. It made me squirm to have that flash of memory.
“I don’t understand,” I said. “What did I do wrong?”
“Oh, forget it,” she said, picking up her coffee cup and her newspaper and going outside to the patio table to finish reading the paper.
I stood watching her, wondering where my Mary had gone. I decided to go out and apologize for whatever it was I’d done, even though I wasn’t sure an apology was called for. But as I pulled the sliding screen door behind me and approached the patio table, she beat me to the punch.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
“Me, too,” I replied, hoping we’d just gotten past our differences and could get our relationship back to the way it had been before Patrick. She gave me a long searching look.
“What are ya doin’, Cassie?” she said. She never called me by my name. She always called me Hon or Darlin’, and hearing my name from her lips made me nervous.
“What do you mean?” I said.
“What are ya doin’ with that boy?” she said.
“I love him,” I said. Saying this out loud surprised me a little, because up until then I’d told myself I was only having fun, the way girls in their twenties were supposed to have fun, the way they were supposed to explore life and enjoy the exploration. Mary looked at me and shook her head.
“Do ya really?” she said. “Or has he cast a spell on ya? Have ya fallen for his blarney because you’re lonely?”
“We’re good together,” I said.
“What do ya think he wants from you?” she said.
“Love,” I said. “I think he loves me, too.”
“Are ya sure?” she said.
“Yes,” I said.
“Well, I hope you’re right,” she said. “Just be careful. Boys like that can pull the wool over your eyes.”
“Patrick would never do that to me,” I said. “Why do you dislike him so much?”
Mary looked at me intently, studying my face as if to see if I were capable of understanding the answer she was going to give me. I must have come up short, because she just shrugged. I wasn’t about to let it go, though.
“No, don’t do that,” I said. “You’ve disliked him from the minute I brought him in here. That’s uncomfortable for all of us. If you think he’s bad for me, then you need to tell me why you feel that way.”
She sat silent, her head down. She stared at her hands clasped together in her lap, wringing each other.
“Please,” I said.
“It’s just that I know boys like him,” she began. “A boy like that swept me off my feet when I was your age. And that boy took advantage of me and left me with a one-year-old baby to take care of all by myself. And he didn’t even look back. He didn’t even say goodbye. That’s not the worst of it, either. A boy like that put a spell on my beautiful daughter, Emma, and he took her away from me and brought her here and got her on drugs and sold her body to other men, then left her to rot in the gutter. He went on his way with another poor young girl who couldn’t resist his charms. Both those boys, who were very much like your precious Patrick, took chunks out of my soul, and I would just die to see that happen to you.”
She was fighting back tears by then. I didn’t know what to say. I couldn’t see Patrick doing any of the things she warned me about, but I could understand her point of view.
“He’s not like that,” I said.
“So you think,” she said. “Just you be careful.”
Mary and I had cleared the air a little, but our relationship was still strained, mostly because I didn’t pay attention to her warning. I continued to see Patrick, falling more and more in love with him as the months went by. By the time the school year was over, we were planning a future together. I was afraid to tell Mary, but when Patrick asked me to move to Costa Mesa with him and I said yes, there was no choice but to tell Mary.
It was a gloomy Sunday morning in June when I dropped my bombshell. Not only was I moving to Costa Mesa with Patrick, but I was giving up my job at Mandala. I’d found a secretarial position with a homebuilder in Costa Mesa, and I was scheduled to start work in two weeks. I couldn’t delay the inevitable. We were having breakfast at the kitchen table when I finally found the courage to speak.
“I have something to talk to you about,” I started tentatively.
“Oh?” she said. She looked nervous, and I suspect she had an idea this wasn’t going to be good news for her. I decided I had to just spit it all out – all at once, like ripping a Band-Aid off as fast as you could to lessen the pain.
“Patrick and I are moving in together in Costa Mesa. I have a new job that starts in two weeks, so I’ll be moving out next weekend.” I held my breath waiting for the explosion from Mary.
“Oh. Is that right?” she said.
“Yes,” I said, still anticipating fireworks. But she surprised me.
“Fine,” she said. “Good luck to ya.” And just like that she picked up her breakfast dishes, took them to the sink and started washing them without another word.
I was stunned. I thought she cared about me. I thought she would at least say she would miss me. I thought she might try to talk me out of leaving. But she did none of that. She just wished me luck in an unemotional tone, like you’d use with someone who meant nothing to you. It was more like a politeness than an actual expression of good fortune. I couldn’t believe it.
“Is that all you have to say?” I asked.
“What else do you want from me?” she said, her back to me.
I didn’t know. What had I wanted from her? After everything we’d gone through together, I wanted more than what she was giving. But maybe she thought she’d already given enough to me. Maybe she thought she had given more than enough to me and definitely more than I seemed to willing to take.
“I don’t know,” I said.
“Well, then,” she said, still not looking at me.
I felt like I was leaving home again and my mother was stirring the soup and drinking her rum and coke and telling me not to let the door hit me in the ass on the way out. What had I done to make them treat me like that?
“Okay, then,” I said to her back and left the kitchen.
* * * * *
Patrick and I found a tiny little apartment close to Orange Coast College, where I took some classes, still working toward my AA and trying to find my passion, like Mary had suggested. Patrick already knew what his passion was and he was hard at work pursuing it. He had been accepted at University of California Irvine and was studying creative writing. He was a poet, yes, but mostly he wanted to be a screenwriter. He already had six screenplays completed and was shopping them around. He worked at a bookstore near campus and I had my new job as an escrow secretary for Monterey Homes. We settled into a routine, and for a while it was good.
Once again I discovered I was good at my job, something that always seemed to surprise me about myself. I don’t know why I doubted that I could excel at whatever I tried, but I did. I worked hard to learn all the ins and outs of escrow, and I found out I was good with numbers. That was another revelation, because I had thought I was hopeless with math. It turns out I just hadn’t tried very hard before. I gained confidence in my abilities and before long I was a star in the Monterey Homes escrow department. I put in long hours and my paycheck got fatter because of it.
When Patrick said he needed to spend more time working on his screenplays and his homework, I suggested he quit his job. By then I was making a good salary for someone my age, and I could cover the expenses, if we didn’t go overboard with the spending. I figured it would be good for us both in the long run if Patrick could concentrate on his writing and his college degree. I didn’t have to twist Patrick’s arm to get him to agree, which in retrospect should have been a red flag for me. But it wasn’t. He quit his job the next day and I became the sole provider for us.
I can’t put my finger on when exactly it all started to go wrong. There were little things that started happening, things I’d see as an annoyance, as petty and wouldn’t think much about – like thinking I had sixty dollars in my wallet instead of the forty that were there, or like having a mysterious fifty dollar charge on my credit card from a place I’d never heard of, like getting phone calls at all hours of the night and having the person hang up when I answered. I didn’t add it all up. I wasn’t careful, like Mary had suggested I be.
And Patrick was becoming less interested in sex. That alone should have alerted me that something was wrong. He’d never been able to get enough of me. I told myself he was under pressure to get his script completed for his screenwriting class. I made excuses for him that finals were only a couple of weeks away and he had to spend all his energy on studying. I was so full of excuses for him that he didn’t ever have to make any for himself.
It all hit at once, just before Christmas. I wrote a check for one hundred dollars to pay for Patrick’s Christmas present and it bounced. I had never come up short in my checking account, so I was beside myself. I hated to make mistakes, especially with money. When I called the bank from work, a condescending woman told me that I never should have written that check when I’d written one for five hundred fifty dollars the day before that had left me with only ten dollars.
“What?” I said. “I never wrote a check for five hundred fifty dollars.”
“Well, I have it right here,” she said. “You wrote it to a Patrick Stevens and he cashed it here at the bank.”
My heart stopped.
“I wrote a check to Patrick?” I said.
“Yes,” she said. “It’s your preprinted check and your signature.”
I felt like I was going to throw up. My cheeks were hot and people in the office were staring at me. The world started spinning.
“I didn’t write that check,” I said.
“Well, it’s been cashed, so there’s nothing I can do about it,” she said. “If you think someone forged your signature, you can file a complaint, but the money is gone.”
I hung up and sat at my desk, cheeks and eyes burning, my heart racing, bile in my throat. It was three in the afternoon, but I made an excuse to my boss that I didn’t feel well and I left the office. When I got home, the apartment was unusually quiet. I’d gotten used to Patrick’s noises, the clack of the typewriter and the jazz music he always played, so without those sounds the place seemed empty. And it was empty – of Patrick’s belongings. He’d cleared out everything he owned and half of my things, too, along with my bank account. The television was gone, as was the stereo system, the diamond necklace Mary had given me after the baby was born and every small appliance we owned. I assumed he’d pawned all of that to get cash for whatever he needed it for. I later discovered he’d used my credit card to pay for a plane ticket to New York and dinner at an expensive restaurant two weeks before. He left without any explanation, without even a goodbye. So, Grandma, I didn’t have to say goodbye after all.
Mary was right about Patrick. I hadn’t been able to see him through her eyes, and it had cost me dearly. Not only had I lost a good deal of money, but I’d lost my heart and I’d lost Mary. The price of hearing Patrick say hello had been very high indeed.
Monday, July 7, 2014
“So what’s so friggin important that you had to come over during Oprah?” said Alethia looking quite miffed and unhappy.
Linda just stood there for a second and then said, “Sorry, I just had to come over now. This is really really hard for me but I have to tell you something and I think maybe you should go sit down.”
Alethia sighed and hands on hips said, “No. Just tell me what you have to say.”
“Okay,” she said, resigned. “I can’t be your friend anymore. There was a long silence where the two women just looked at each other. "I wanted to say it in person and not on the phone, and I just had to get this off my mind. I don’t want you calling any more, I don’t want to go to lunch, I don’t want to hang out with you any more. I just can’t.”
Alethia stared at Linda, twisting her head from side to side, beginning to open her mouth to say something and then closing it because nothing was coming out. Her forehead furrowed and her eyebrows began to protrude as her closed mouth puckered. She looked to the left and right as if she were trying to get some help from someone or somewhere. She shook her head as if trying to shake off water from a shower, but when she finally looked at Linda, hoping for a joking smile and wanting her to say something more, nothing happened. She just stood there. Alethia turned to the TV and pointed the clicker at it. She pushed the off button hard with both hands as Oprah was telling her audience that they were all going to be getting copies of the author’s new book. She then sagged onto the couch as tears spilled from her eyes.
“You hate me?” she said softly to the room.
“No. I don’t hate you. I don’t hate you at all. I just… Alethia, please look at me, she said walking in front of her, and blocking the view of the now darkened TV.”
Alethia looked from her lap to Linda and blinked more tears down her cheeks.
“I get it. I get that you’re shocked, but you’re only shocked because you never really listen. You just talk and talk and complain and complain and I can’t do it any more. I want more positive people in my life. I just can’t spend any more hours on the phone with you talking about the things that aren’t working in your life and listening to your rebuff of every suggestion I make. It’s okay if you want to be miserable, and if you want to complain about every little thing, but I can’t do that any more. It’s making me angry and irritable and I don’t want to just avoid you or not answer your calls or block your calls. We’ve known each other forever, and I’m just exhausted.”
Linda dropped to the floor in front of the CD cabinet and under the 38 inch TV.
Alethia looked up at the television and down at Linda. “I kind of wish we had an earthquake right now and the TV would fall on your head,” said Alethia in a monotone.
“Yeah. I hear you. I think that if someone did this to me, I’d probably wish the same thing on them, and actually, they did. George left, and that was enough of a wake up call for me. So I just want…”
“Wait, you’re dumping me because George dumped you?”
“No. That’s just an analogy. It got me looking at what I’d been doing that would make him not want to be around me and I realized I was being so negative that... I get it. I get didn't want to be around that. I wasn't always that way. Truthfully, I didn’t like being around me, and so I’ve taken stock of my life and I am just letting go of everyone and everything that is holding me to my old patterns.”
“You sound like your shrink,” Alethia said, disgusted. And you're just blaming everyone in the world for your problems. You think that by not hanging out with me you're gonna be a better person? A happier person? Really? You're not that happy a person Linda, and I don't think this is gonna make a damned bit of difference."
Linda shrugged her shoulders. "I’m sorry if this hurts you, but I have to let go. I have to do what I think is going to help me. You know, I was thinking about moving. I was thinking it would be easier to leave town, you know, just start over. But I decided that it would be better for me to just be brave and stand up…"
“You’re so full of shit.”
Linda sat there looking up at her now ex-best friend.
“I want you to leave.”
“Okay. Okay,” she said getting up. “I am sorry. I just didn't know what else to do. I need a change, I need to change, and it’s just too hard…”
“Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah Yeah.” Said Alethia, pushing her toward the door.
“Go, just go, just get out of here.”
“I am sorry,” said Linda. “I wish there was something else I could do. I wish I were stronger and more able to maybe help, but I’m not, and so, that’s it. We’re done. I really do wish you well,” said Linda as the door slammed in her face. Linda stared at the door and waved. She knew that Alethia would be looking through the peep hole.
She turned from the door, took a deep breath and walked to her car. She felt lighter than she had in ages. No more late night phone calls complaining about her husband or her sister. No more conversations about how she was really going to lose those 20 pounds this time. There was a little bit of sadness, but mostly, Linda felt joy. She felt like she did when she’d cleaned out her closet of all the old clothes and underwear that no longer fit or felt good or looked good.
But the next visit, she knew, would be harder, because the next visit was to her mother.
Monday, June 23, 2014
By Liz Zuercher
After nineteen-year-old Cassie leaves Billy in Chicago, she travels by herself to Los Angeles, where she knows no one. Fate leads her to Mary McCarthy and the next chapter of her life.
After nineteen-year-old Cassie leaves Billy in Chicago, she travels by herself to Los Angeles, where she knows no one. Fate leads her to Mary McCarthy and the next chapter of her life.
Sheer luck and blind faith sent me to live with Mary McCarthy in a little Long Beach cottage shortly after I got to Los Angeles. In one stroke of good fortune I had a place to live, a job and a new friend. What I remember most about Mary McCarthy is her kindness. Like a mother hen, she took me under her wing and helped me find my way in a strange new city.
Like a Sixties hippie in her mid-fifties, she was a free spirit with a take on life that I’d never encountered in rural Illinois. Mary had been brought up Irish Catholic, but somewhere along the line she strayed from organized religion, favoring instead a New Age approach to the mysteries of the Universe. Still, she hadn’t renounced Catholicism altogether. She only washed her hands of the guilt the Catholic religion wallows in. Mary didn’t feel guilty about anything, I don’t think. She was warm and generous and, as I said before, incredibly kind and open minded.
Mary and I became great friends right away. She didn’t ask prying questions, which I appreciated immensely, but it wasn’t because she didn’t care. She just had a sense of what was and wasn’t her business. And speaking of her business, she put me to work in it right away. The day after I arrived at her house, before I’d even had a chance to unpack all my clothes and put them away, she told me we were going to work. She hadn’t even asked me if wanted to work for her. I felt indebted to her already, so I didn’t argue, and off we went to Mandala, Mary’s small New Age gift shop and bookstore.
Mandala was about as far away from the housewares department at Marshall Field’s as you could get. What did I know about crystals and tarot cards and astrology charts and angels and chi? All of this was foreign to me, but that’s what made it fascinating. I’ve always loved learning about new things, so I plunged right in. After about a month Mary could leave me on my own at Mandala and I could spout New Age concepts like a pro. I loved talking about spirituality and the Universe and being in the moment. To me, it made absolute sense, much more so than the strict religion Grandmother Petersen tried to shove down our throats.
After a few weeks with Mary, I was just getting into this New Age lifestyle when I started throwing up in the morning and feeling tired and swollen. I complained to Mary that I didn’t know what was wrong with me. I’d never felt so worn out and pukey.
“Ya aren’t pregnant, are ya?” she said, looking me up and down.
“No. Of course not,” I said. But that started me thinking about Billy and the last time we’d made love. When he finally came home after missing my birthday, he went into his usual routine, apologizing, kissing me like he’d done nothing wrong. We argued and cried and in the end I gave in and we ended up making love like we always did.
In Long Beach, sitting in Mary’s cheerful kitchen, the horrible thought struck me that maybe she was right after all. I started counting the weeks since my last menstrual period and couldn’t remember when it was. My periods had always been irregular, so I didn’t pay much attention to when I had them and when I didn’t. There’d been some light spotting a couple of weeks ago, but nothing you could call a full on period. When it dawned on me that my last period was in Chicago, I groaned.
“What is it?” Mary said, turning away from the stove to look at me.
“I think you’re right,” I said.
“About what?” Mary said.
“About being pregnant,” I said so softly she barely heard me.
“Oh,” she said. “Well, now, whaddaya know?”
“What am I going to do, Mary?” I said, a note of panic creeping into my voice.
“Well, first we’re gonna take you to my gynecologist. She’ll tell you for sure,” she said. “Then we’ll go from there. One step at a time, Hon.” She sounded so calm, so sure. There was no dramatic cry of despair like my friend Sandra had gotten from her mother when she got pregnant, no rush to damage control and demands to make the father responsible. No probing questions, no anger. Mary’s was just a matter of fact one-thing-at-a-time response. And a smile, her big beautiful reassuring smile radiating out to me. Of course, she wasn’t my mother, so she didn’t have anything at stake here.
Mary took me to Dr. Gustafson’s office, but since she wasn’t a relative, she wasn’t allowed in the examination room with me. She squeezed my hand when the nurse called my name and smiled at me from her seat in the lobby as I followed the nurse through the door to see the doctor.
The tests having been completed, Dr. Gustafson came into the exam room and sat down on a padded stool across from me. I put down the People magazine I was absently thumbing through. I have no idea what the stories were about. All I could see was that night with Billy, and all I could think about was what my future held. I looked up at the doctor.
“You’re going to have a baby,” Dr. Gustafson said.
“Okay,” I whispered.
“How do you feel about that?” she said.
“I don’t know,” I answered and tried to hold back the tears that were threatening to betray the fact that this news terrified me.
“Hmmm,” she said. “Does the baby’s father know you’re here?”
“No,” I answered. That was the answer to two questions – two “heres”. Billy didn’t even know I was in California, let alone that I was in an obstetrician’s office, finding out I was pregnant by him. “He’s in Chicago,” I added, as if that would explain everything.
“Does he live here or there?” Dr. Gustafson asked.
“There,” I said. “He doesn’t know where I am. I left him.”
“Married?” she asked.
“No,” I answered.
All the questions Mary had never asked, Dr. Gustafson was asking of me now, but I didn’t mind. I still felt like she was on my side, trying to get the true picture to know what she was dealing with. So was I – trying to get the true picture of what I was dealing with.
“What do I do now?” I asked, a tear escaping and running down my cheek.
“What do you want to do?” she said.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I don’t even know what my options are.”
“You’re about eight weeks pregnant from what I can tell, so you have some choices,” she said. “There are three ways you could go. You can have the baby and keep it. You can have the baby and give it up for adoption. Or,” she paused and studied me carefully. “Or, you could terminate the pregnancy.”
“You mean have an abortion?” I said.
“Yes,” she said. “But that option won’t be open to you very much longer. You’ll be too far along. So you’ll have to make that decision quickly, within the next week or so.”
“Oh,” I said, feeling a chill even though the office was warm with sunlight pouring through the big window. The room smelled like disinfectant and everything was light and bright, too bright. The wallpaper looked like pink gingham with little teddy bears and ducklings sprinkled here and there. I wondered how the women who hadn’t been able to get pregnant felt about this wallpaper. I decided I didn’t like it. I looked out the fifth floor office window at the ocean view. The sky was bright blue and there wasn’t a single cloud. The ocean and sky were the same color, and it was hard to see the point where they met. There was no clear horizon. It was disorienting, wrong. I felt wrong. I felt like any decision I made here was going to be wrong for someone – wrong for me or for the baby or even for Billy who had no idea he had fathered a child. Would he even care? A wave of nausea overtook me.
“I think I’m going to be sick,” I said. Dr. Gustafson managed to get the wastebasket over to me before I upchucked. I was embarrassed, but she took it in stride.
“You should think about it, get used to it all, before you make a final decision,” she said. She was kind, too, just like Mary. I could see the sympathy in her eyes.
“Yes,” I said.
“Why don’t you make an appointment for a week from today and you can let me know your decision then,” she said.
“Okay,” I said.
“Are you all right to go home?” she asked.
“I guess so,” I said. What was home I wondered?
“Okay, then, we’ll see you next week. Just stop at the desk on your way out and make an appointment. And take care of yourself. We’ll talk more next week,” she said before she left me alone in the examination room. I dressed and went to meet Mary in the lobby.
Mary looked up expectantly when I opened the door that led back into the lobby. I thought about the door. I had gone through one way and I was just Cassie. I came back through the other way and I was Cassie with a baby. My face must have told Mary the story, because she came up to wrap me in her arms.
“Aw, Hon,” she said. “It’ll be okay. We’ll work it out.”
I believed her, but I wasn’t sure why. And I wasn’t sure how anything would ever be okay again. A great burden weighed me down. I made my next appointment with the way too perky office manager and stared at the appointment card she gave me, putting it into my purse.
“Let’s go home and make us a nice pot of tea,” Mary said. For Mary, a nice pot of tea solved any problem. I hoped it would solve mine.
During that week between appointments, I saw babies everywhere I went. It seemed like every woman had a baby, that there were more babies in the world than adults, which made me think, why does the world need another baby? But just as I’d have that thought, the one that meant killing my baby, my stomach would seize up and I’d have the dry heaves. That should have told me something right there, but I kept on vacillating back and forth all week.
What do I want with a baby? I’ll just end this pregnancy and get on with my life. That would pop into my head when I was making change at Mandala.
How can you think such a thing? You can’t kill your baby. That thought followed closely on the previous one and was out of my head by the time the lady with the flowing gauze dress and beaded vest I just given change to was out the door and the little bell on the door was jangling to say she’d left the store.
I should call Billy, I thought. I don’t want to call Billy ever again, I answered myself. He should know, I argued. No he shouldn’t, I argued back. He should have a say in what I do. No he shouldn’t have anything to do with it. My body. My baby. My decision.
Mary thought I should call Billy. She thought I should call my parents, but she didn’t know Billy and she didn’t know my parents. Besides, that would mean I would probably have to tell them where I was, and I definitely didn’t want them to know how to reach me. I wanted nothing to do with Billy, and I certainly wanted nothing to do with my parents, especially my father. I’m pretty sure they didn’t want anything to do with me, either. Mary finally gave up on the notion of my calling Billy and my family when it became clear I wouldn’t do it.
“You’re a big girl,” she said, which made me feel like anything but a big girl. But it triggered something in me that made it obvious what I was going to do.
“Yes,” I said. “And about to get bigger.”
“Well,” Mary said. “I guess that’s that.”
“Yes. That’s that,” I replied.
So I went back to the doctor’s office for my next appointment and delivered my first decision: I was going to have the baby. The rest of it was still up for grabs, whether or not I’d keep it or give it up for adoption. I couldn’t handle that decision right then. I had to grow into that one, play it by ear.
It’s a funny thing about decisions, you can stew and stew about them, but usually once you’ve made up your mind, you forget about all the back and forth of the process. You just head on down the road you’ve chosen. I felt that way about the decision to have my baby, but my next decision still haunts me.
Twenty-five years later, I’m not at all sure I did the right thing. But I have to say I felt good about it when I chose to give my baby up for adoption. I made the choice about a month before the baby was due, and I was getting real tired of being pregnant. I felt like a blimp, a blimp that had to go to the bathroom every twenty minutes and that ached all over with fatigue. My body had never looked like this and I didn’t like it. I wanted it all over with. But unlike many pregnant women, I didn’t dream of carrying my baby in my arms instead of my belly. I couldn’t picture it.
I have to remind myself that I was only nineteen years old and not that long off the farm. I’d done some gutsy things, leaving home, leaving Billy and Chicago to come all the way to California by myself, but I was still very much the naïve girl from Central Illinois who was trying out her wings. I was not confident about who I was. I was not sure what I wanted from my life, and I was not even sure I had what it would take to make something of myself. And I did want to make something of myself. I at least wanted the chance to make something of myself. In addition to all that, I wanted to have some fun in my life, and so far there hadn’t been much of that. I was just so very young.
My nineteen-year-old pregnant self could not imagine being tied down by a baby I’d never wanted in the first place. I’d been stupid, sure, but should I have to pay my whole life for my mistake? And that’s what keeping the baby would mean. I’d have that responsibility my whole life, a prospect that seemed like too high a price to pay. And speaking of responsibility, how could I ever afford to raise a child? I could barely support myself. Only with the kindness of Mary had I been able to get by so far, but I couldn’t ask her to take on a baby, even though she said she’d be fine with it. I didn’t think she had really thought about it carefully. Maybe I was the more mature one in that respect. Or maybe I was only more selfish.
So all that went flying through my mind during my pregnancy, until I realized that the right thing for me was to give the baby up for adoption. More importantly, I decided that it was the right thing for the baby, too. It was not just “the baby”, it was a little person who needed and deserved a loving home with parents who really wanted him or her. I told myself that my baby would have a head start on other babies who, like me, ended up with parents who didn’t really want them and couldn’t wait until they were out of the house. I wanted my baby to be wanted. I wanted my baby to be loved and cherished.
That’s why I decided to give him to someone else.
I was happy with that decision until the day he was born. After thirteen hours of labor and natural childbirth, with Mary at my side coaching me to breathe, my little baby boy came into this world. I saw him for only an instant when Dr. Gustafson held him up for me to see. His face was beet red and he was screaming his lungs out, which I realized didn’t annoy me at all at that moment. It meant he was alive and kicking, which was a very good thing. I had done a very good thing. The nurse took my baby boy from the doctor’s grasp and cradled him in her arms, and then she disappeared out of sight. I felt the most intense sorrow I had ever known. I wanted to call after the nurse to bring my baby back, that I wanted him after all. I looked up at Mary’s face and saw tears streaming down her cheeks.
“I gave my baby away,” I said, my voice weak and shaky.
“Yes,” she said quietly. “It’ll be okay, Hon. He’ll be fine and so will you.” She squeezed my hand and gave me a kiss on the forehead. I cried and cried and cried.
* * * * *
I went back to work at Mandala, like nothing had ever happened. Like I hadn’t been pregnant and had a baby boy and given him away. Waves of regret would wash over me, especially when my breasts ached from engorgement and as they shrank from the lack of a suckling child at the nipple. My body slowly returned to almost what it had been before the baby, all except for a little pooch where my womb was shrinking back to a normal size. But there was something different about me when I looked in the mirror in the morning to apply my makeup. My eyes weren’t the same. They looked dull and sad.
Sometimes I cried myself to sleep when I thought about my baby boy being cradled in another woman’s arms, being raised by someone else. Still, I felt like I’d made the right decision, and after a few months I had accepted what had happened and what I did, and I put it behind me.
What helped drive the guilt away was the idea that I had to make something of myself. It was selfish to give my baby boy away. I did it for me as much as him. It occurred to me that I had to make that sacrifice count by making myself better. I became obsessed with the notion that I had to march forward with my life, march toward a goal that was worthy of my son’s sacrifice. I had to make my time count, the time I had because I was free of the responsibility of caring for a baby, raising a child. I had to be someone other than the cute little clerk at Mandala who knew her way around the New Age book collection and could find the right crystal for a customer. That had been fine and comfortable for a while, but it wasn’t enough now. Being comfortable wasn’t good enough to compensate for giving away my son. I had to be uncomfortable. I had to stretch myself. I had to turn the corner and find a new path.