A Girl Called Italy

Notes from Thursday, the last day of September: There are no blonde girls in the abortion clinic. Do blonde girls not get abortions?

They give us aliases when we come in the door so they don’t have to call us by name. That’s fun. Why don’t they do this at the dentist? Orange, laminated cards bear our pseudonyms. They are country names. Like we have taken on immense largeness by being in this room.

“Indonesia?”

A girl gets up and walks to the door.

There is a startling amount of paperwork. About six documents in, I start to wonder how many times they need me to write my address. Couldn’t they look at one of the other forms? Are they concerned that I have forgotten where I live? Or are they trying to make sure they know where to send my body if things go wrong?

“Serbia?”

The receptionist is a rabbit. She looks at me furtively, like I may make a sudden move. As soon as she hands me my little card, I wonder if she chose it on purpose. “Italy” is too on the nose to be an accident. After I dismiss the notion that it was deliberate, I have the immediate sense that it’s confirmation that I’m in the right place at the right time, cosmically speaking.

China is called next. There are two long rows of chairs, but they face ahead like we’re on a bus, all facing the TV which is playing morning talk shows on LOUD. The host is interviewing an actress who made a return to her career after leaving for years to raise her son. I stop updating my gig calendar for a moment, weighing the odds of such an interview taking place at the moment I’m in this room. Omens abound.

The sound of chipper commercials is sort of palliative after a while, and the windows let in a flood of early fall light.

Indonesia is called again, and I wonder what happened to the first Indonesia. Could there be two? Did they honestly cycle through the countries already? Impossible. There are seven chairs in each row, and every chair is full. It occurs to me that they’re oriented to the front so we can’t really look at each other. When I came in, only two seats were empty, one at the very front and one at the very back. As I sit here tucked in the corner with my back to the wall, my view is fairly complete. Three pairs of flip flops, four Crocs, lots of all-black sneakers. I had a hard time picking clothes this morning. What do you wear to this? My grey Chucks feel wrong until I see a nurse wearing a similar pair. I lose ten minutes trying to understand what it means that I wore the same shoes as the nurses.

I wonder if anyone else in here is a first-timer. I’m very empty, having consumed nothing since midnight, not even water and it’s almost 10:30. I’ve been sitting here for half an hour. Paul is outside around the corner, as close as he’s allowed to be. No guests allowed because of COVID. He didn’t like that at all, insisted he’d be allowed–said, from six-feet-four-inches up,

“What are they going to do, physically stop me?” But there had been a bouncer at the entrance. I’d turned to Paul and said, “Okay.” I don’t remember if he’d kissed me goodbye, couldn’t watch his face as the elevator doors closed. Now I feel stupid that it soothes me knowing he’s just downstairs, sitting in a booth at Junior’s Cheesecake.

We called it a zygoblin because it felt too clinical to call it a fetus and like nonsense to call it a baby. And because it came into my life and wreaked some havoc, as goblins do. The inside joke made it ours without making it impossible.

Two hours after the lonely elevator, I’m still sitting in the waiting room accosted by daytime TV. USA is called and then Canada and then USA again and again Canada, and I finally figure out that they call you for different phases and then send you back to wait again. So much waiting.

Finally Italy. I sign more forms. I pee in a cup. It’s the third time this week my pee has been asked to verify my knocked-uppedness. Three for three, there’s no doubt. Back to my chair.

More waiting. Now only four chairs are still occupied.

I’m sitting next to Brazil, whom I feel a kinship with because I caught her eye and nodded when I overheard her say into her phone, “Well, don’t order it now, it’ll be cold by the time I get there, and I’m hungry.” France has a short haircut and a small birthmark on the back of her neck, the shape of which is now permanently burned into my retinas.

China, Indonesia, and Serbia are all gone, USA and Canada are still waiting. Maybe their pee was less convincing than mine? Italy is called again. This time I go through the door and I won’t come back. No one comes back to this room after their second call. There must be another exit.

They make me put my valuables into a plastic bag to be locked up until after. No jewelry, they say, and I remove the earrings I now feel silly it took five minutes to choose. I ease my engagement ring off, revealing a strip of white skin from last winter. I feel naked without it and ignore a pang of loneliness but am too distracted to remember the two rings on my other hand. I don’t realize until later that I’ve worn them the whole time.

They give me a robe that’s soft from being washed a million times and teal socks with rubber grips on the bottom and a hairnet. Again I feel silly for worrying about my hair this morning, glad I left it loose, natural.

They take blood. The nurse who took some yesterday left my left arm a blossoming purple bruise, so I ask the nurse today to use my right. She’s an old pro, and I’m grateful. I’m quiet as the needle goes in.

Another woman—it’s been all women so far, I’m grateful to notice—says she’ll do my ultrasound. Confusion clears when she rolls a condom onto a long wand, rubs it with lube, and puts it inside me. “To take measurements,” she says. I’m now deeply curious about my measurements and feel a weird sense of pride in my vagina, which I’m sure is excellently proportioned. I’m also unable to assess how this information will assist in the procedure, but all I can ask is, “Everything look normal?” before the tech informs me the nurse will discuss all that next and I’m ushered back out.

Along the wall of plastic chairs, wrapped in white hospital blankets against the chill, sit a line of women in teal socks and blue hairnets. One at a time, each goes for bloodwork, ultrasound, final release forms, and anesthesia consult before she goes through the last door. Each time one goes through the last door, a new one comes in from the changing room to take a seat. Absent any defining articles, I feel like a product on a conveyor belt. I briefly wish I had followed through with the idea to write encouraging messages and pleading warnings on my thighs with a Sharpie. “SEE ME. I’M REAL!”

The plodding rote-ness of this de-production line makes me feel both comforted and lonely. To soothe myself, I craft clever wordplay as we tick into the fourth hour. None of it is very good, and none will stick with me past the final door.

It smells like Bath & Body Works in here: cucumber and mint, cool and sweet.

Behind another curtain, I meet the anesthesiologist, the first man I’ve seen. He’s Russian-sounding and calm. He smiles when he sees me, says he likes my mask. It’s a pink one with a big grin on it. I thought, rightly, it might be the only thing of mine I would be allowed in the room, and I wanted the doctor to know I was a person, and to maybe think I was funny, and to please take out the zygoblin but leave my beloved vagina intact. Stupid thought. Insulting to think they’d do anything but their professional best for everyone, even the girls without funny masks who proved they had good personalities.

Dr. Something-ovitch says he’s going to put in an IV line. Not expecting any more poking, I tense, ask if I have to. “It’s how we give you the anesthesia.” I feel my heart pick up. I thought it would be inhaled, I was prepared for inhaling. I consider both arms and offer up the one that’s just been used to draw blood. Better than the bruised one. He checks it but wants the left. My stomach turns, and I want to look away but have to watch as he puts in the line. The pinch again, third time in two days. Piss and blood, this whole process. The now familiar quease of the last six weeks visits again and I’m angry again at the zygoblin for making my iron stomach so weak.

Suddenly a wash of emotion hits me, fatigue from the last three days, and I’m mortified I’ll cry. I clamp down any noise, freeze myself. Shake my head no when he asks if I have questions. I’ll never know my measurements. I scribble my signature on the electronic pad for the millionth time, reaching awkwardly across my impaled left arm, the plastic catheter dangling grotesquely. He says the nurse will be in and leaves.

The dam breaks, and big splashy tears roll free and silent down my cheeks. I lean in, needing it but insisting on undetectability, hiding behind as much privacy as a flimsy curtain in a room full of alternate me’s can provide. The nurse comes in when I’m fully soggy. We both pretend I’m not actively weeping. I’m pained that she will assume I’m crying for the wrong reasons, that she’ll think I have some tragic story where I really want a baby but some douchebag won’t step up to be a partner.

My chance to ask questions comes and goes but it’s impossible to speak through silent sobs, so I resign myself to ride the ride, unknowing. At least no one else knows I’m crying. Good job, me. Then she asks me to take a seat back in the room. Damn. I leave the relative aloneness of the curtain and cross, floodlit, to an empty chair, my face a glowing beacon of feeling. I sit between two women, one older and one younger, both with their shit together, and feel guilty for crying, for indulging it, though I have no choice. These are Have To tears. At least I haven’t made a sound, I think, mollified. I hate the assumptions my narcissism insists they are making about me. I hate being a pathetic white girl crying over this. I’m dropping cliches everywhere, spilling over my purse of tropes.

I’m crying because it’s a lot, and it’s new, and it’s scary. Because it’s already taken hours longer than they said and I wasn’t prepared to be strong for this long. Because I both absolutely know and have no idea what’s behind the last door. I have no regrets, no doubts, and yet I’m upset. I’m afraid of all the things I don’t know about what will happen. What a pussy, I think, and let the inescapable tears roll.

After another eternity, when I’m surrounded by all new women, they call my name. Somewhere between the changing room and the last door, we get our names back. A nurse checks my wristband to make sure it’s really me and then I float through the last door. I do not see what it looks like or to what hallway and other rooms it leads. My brain, ever making maps, is out to lunch. I can remember the route to restaurants I ate at in cities I visited for one day, but this place is a labyrinth. You always move forward, never back, and my brain refuses to trace my path.

In the room is yet another nurse, capable and steady. I’m immediately glad she’s handling things. She straps my legs up into the stirrups, deftly sweeping the sheet over my business end. I try not to think about being strapped down.

I lay my arms out to either side on the arm tables. I’m spread out like the Vitruvian man, waiting the final wait. It feels like nearing the top of the first drop on a roller coaster. I hate roller coasters.

A different doctor comes in, and the nurse introduces him as the anesthesiologist. He’s younger and black and I feel relieved it’s not the old white guy. I wonder if that’s racist. I ask him, calmer now after the long wait, the question I’ve been wanting to ask everyone every step of the way: “You’ve done this a thousand times, right?”

He says yes, and the nurse says, “Oh, he’s been here like thirty years,” and I say, “I’m sorry, that’s probably an asshole question,” and he says, “No, it’s not, it’s a good question,” and comes closer to my face and says real simply, “Because everybody had a first day.” And I immediately like him and feel like I might actually wake up from this procedure.

The doctor comes in. She has short blond hair poking out under her cap and pink eyeshadow. She talks like a real person, quietly, like a friendly stranger, which is what we are, and stands close so I don’t have to crane my neck to see her. She says her name, what she’ll be doing, asks if I have questions. I say, “No.” At this point I’m cresting the top; questions don’t exist here. I know she’s gonna do right by me and my vagina. I’m glad I didn’t write messages in Sharpie on my thighs.

The nurse asks if the two doctors are ready, and they concur that they are. She says my name, what I’m here for today, and asks if they’re all in agreement. Both doctors say yes. The needle goes into the catheter in my arm, and the anesthesiologist says that I’ll feel some burning or pain at the injection site and that’s normal, to just breathe deeply for him, and I do. I feel the sting in my arm and say so and then I’m gone.

When I wake up, there is a nurse with big, dark eyes right in front of my face, saying, “Hello, sweetheart, how are you feeling?” Her tone is so gentle and her eyes so warm I feel like she’s literally caught me in her arms. I ask if everything went alright. She says, “Yes, perfectly,” and asks if I’d like some tea. I’m rather bowled over by this offer, and say yes, and she hands me a paper cup of warm, sugary tea. It’s the first thing I’ve put in my mouth in 13 hours, and it soothes. Through an unfamiliar grogginess, I ask if she can call Paul. I’m worried that it’s been so long that he’s worried. She returns to say he’s already waiting outside. My heart floats up a few centimeters.

I wait the rest of the requisite hour of recovery drinking water and internally scanning for damage. I feel fairly fine in the down-south department, all things considered, and most noticeably I’m free of that perpetually recurring quease that’s plagued me for weeks, making food a joyless experience. I feel, despite the fuzzy edges of the receding anesthesia, like myself again. The question of whether I should feel badly for not feeling badly about this decision raises its head again, and I pat it, quiet it.

Paul’s face is a familiar shore, his arms, solid and encompassing, a safe harbor. He holds me tenderly, looks into my face, takes me under his big wing. We go home. He holds my hands, touches my cheeks, wraps me into him, and I sink, warm. It’s almost four p.m. We order breakfast from the diner I like.

Amy has left cupcakes from my favorite bakery on the door. Today is about treats. Jeff comes over and we three watch back-to-back Marvel movies. My happy place is on the couch between them, resting my head on one, my legs across the other. Hours later, we order Chinese.

Sleep comes, and a new day. I train almost a full roster of clients, in awe of the science, marveling that I can still demo the lifts. I push them each as hard as always, nitpick their form, celebrate their victories. I feel like me. I am still me.

I bleed, but only how much they say I should. I see children on the street and smile, enjoying them from my not-your-mother perspective. In the next days, I run over the events in my mind and find more and more to be grateful for. The kindness and expertise from every person in that office. The state and city for the access to this so-very-necessary care. I fall over myself with gratitude. More days pass and I think about it less. This is the gift I have been given.

To keep my life. To choose my life. Lucky doesn’t really cover it.

About the Author

Stefanie Londino
New York, NY

Supporting Reproductive Rights

This is a critical time in our fight to preserve access to abortion and reproductive healthcare. We believe that every action counts. Here are three things you can do.

  1. Fight stigmatization by sharing your story and/or supporting people who have shared their stories. Supportive comments and likes make a big difference to the people who have chosen to share their personal experiences.
  2. Reach out to your representatives on the federal, state, and local levels and tell them that you want them to pass legislation that protects reproductive rights including abortion access.
  3. Donate to organizations committed to protecting access to safe and legal abortions. This writer recommended Planned Parenthood for the work they are doing to fight for reproductive rights.

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