make a sound.
We were hiking deep in the
woods and had stopped at a waterfall.
Annie, in typical fashion, decided to scale
the nearly vertical rocks to enjoy the view. After
clambering all the way up she stood with shoulders raised,
a habit she had, and gazed off the mountain. Blue sky blurred behind
her. Water sparkled between her ankles and came out as foam on the other
side. I remember how small she looked up against the boulders, this woman
who I didn’t really know well but who still loomed so large in my life at that time.
She arched her back and waved – proud of having scrambled all the way to the top, bubbling over with enthusiasm as usual – and knocked her head against a ledge. In thoughtless reflex she jerked away; that’s how she lost her balance. Even now, decades later, I can see her slipping off the rocks, her arms flailing, her feet skidding out from under her. She seesawed backward, a gymnast executing an impossible flip, the kind of flip Annie would surely try if she had been a gymnast, as her body pitched high and away from the rocks. She didn’t cry out. She just hung there in the brightness that is the air at the edge of a very high cliff.
Then, with Annie’s genius to surprise, instead of going over the edge her body somehow bent the other way and she dropped, soundlessly, into the waterfall.
I watched, helpless as usual before Annie, as she coursed down like a ball in a chute, whisking around the ax-edge granite of a hairpin turn. With her hair streaming, her hands protecting, her mouth in a dopey grin of absolute horror, she rode the waterfall all the way down, landing in a splash of silver droplets that glittered like diamonds in her hair.
As she limped back to our tent, she told me that she’d had no idea how far she would fall. “I thought I fell off the mountain,” she said, with the same dopey smile, now charming me as effortlessly as everything about Annie charmed me then. “Off the mountain and all the way down. I knew we were hundreds of feet up. I was certain I’d be smashed on the rocks and die, in a gruesome, horrible way.”
She had accepted her death. If it was her karma to die, she explained, then it was her karma to die. Only much later, when it ended between us, did she add (standing at my door, arms overloaded with her books and records) that the last thing on earth she saw would have been me, standing on safe ground, and staring up at her in wonder.
I didn’t know at the time that Annie was pregnant.
We met weeks before when she knocked on the door of a party and asked, “Abbey Road?” She squeezed her shoulders up like she couldn’t care less what the answer was. The guy who opened the door said, “Sure, come on in.” She didn’t say thank you. She just dropped her shoulders, looked at me, and said, “Cool!”
I don’t remember the exact nights when, many years later, my daughters were conceived, but I remember the night I got Annie pregnant. We had broken up after a silly fight and had gotten together to talk about it. In my life back then, even a brief relationship warranted an extensive and heart-wrenching analysis. She had stopped taking the Pill, which is less significant than it seems because Annie was always having some kind of birth control crisis. We didn’t consider other precautions because we didn’t expect to have sex. She sat cross-legged on my bed, the kind of peasant dress she wore all the time spread over her knees, as I told her I missed her and wanted to take her camping so we could be alone together in the woods. She was greatly moved, as Annie was always greatly moved by any gesture of affection. She kept lifting her shoulders and gazing at me helplessly. It’s pretty obvious what happened next, at least obvious to me now. I am struck by how much of my relationship with Annie is obvious now, though at the time it seemed like a beautiful flower unfolding before my stunned and disbelieving eyes.
A month later she called and said, “I’m late. My period’s never late.”
My first thought was that it was an excuse to start things again, especially because we had broken up and gone back together at least twice in the intervening thirty days.
“It does,” she said. “I know it does.”
In those innocent and primeval days the worst thing that could happen from having unprotected sex was an unwanted pregnancy. And that’s what we got.
Abortion was still illegal then, but the only place we could think to go was her doctor. As we drove there I made the mistake of questioning how she could be so sure, having never been pregnant, and we had the first of many arguments during that period. They were tense and vicious, made worse by fighting being the last thing in the world we wanted to do. I waited outside while he examined her. He confirmed she was pregnant, but could offer no other help.
Our choice was clear, and we plunged into the network that existed to find an illegal abortion.
I made a discovery: I could buy any manner of illicit drugs on street corners, enjoy any bizarre sexual activity if I had the cash and the guts. With enough money and nerve I could purchase anything in New York City. But an abortion? After asking everyone we knew, we learned the name of a church in Greenwich Village that acted as a clearinghouse for abortion information, a kind of underground referral service.
It felt like a date, one of the few formal dates we had. We sipped espresso at a West Fourth Street café and strolled down Bleecker examining pottery in narrow shops where incense burned. We even made out a little in Washington Square Park, as long-haired women caressed guitars and sang of broken hearts, and long-haired men climbed on benches to rail about the coming revolution.
Then we hurried to the church where the precious information was to be had.
According to our instructions, Annie had to go in alone. I waited, sitting on a brownstone stoop and studying every cop, or anyone who looked like an undercover cop, which, by definition, everyone does. When Annie came out she stopped in front of me, lifted her shoulders high and dropped them, like a sigh. It was the gesture she used to have, and it expressed hope. She had been given the name of a doctor, or at least someone who performed abortions, and a password: “Nixon is a friend of mine, and I need a checkup.” We were told it would cost six hundred dollars, cash.
Six hundred dollars wasn’t a lot of money for us back then. It was a fortune. And a new dilemma, in that age of sexual revolution. Who pays? It’s not as simple as it sounds, if you consider factors of personal responsibility, guilt, sixties mores, antiquated applications of chivalry, women’s independence, and equal distribution of the wealth. I had little money, but Annie was always in a financial pinch.
Her girlfriend Cheryl told her, anachronistically I thought, that I should pay all of it, because I was the one “who got you pregnant.” Another view had it that she should pay it all, that even telling me she was pregnant was “manipulative.” The logical view was to split it, which we did. How much else of the experience was split, and how evenly and at what cost, is a question whose complexity I wouldn’t understand until years later.
I took six hundred from the bank (I had the excellent saving habits that have allowed me to put aside money for my daughters’ college) with Annie supposed to pay me back after her latest financial crisis was over.
With the bills in a fat bundle with rubber band around it we drove to the address, a grimy highway motel near Jersey City. The sky was as grimy as the setting; even the air seemed smudged. It was the kind of place that makes you feel like washing up after you touch anything. He was coming at four, and we waited. Neither of us had been to a motel without our parents. The television was a treat, and we watched a stream of soap operas, news shows, and sitcoms, all of which seemed beamed from another planet. Annie cuddled, putting her jacket down so she wouldn’t touch the pillow. I considered initiating something sexual, only because the motel blinked illicit sex in purple neon. Of course we didn’t do anything, especially with Annie jumping up every time a tractor-trailer blasted into the parking lot. She spent a lot of time holding up the dusty, once-white curtain, hunching up her shoulders and staring at the highway. It was amazing how much activity there was in a crummy Jersey City motel on a Tuesday afternoon. All of it appeared to be of a sexual nature. We were probably the only people there just watching TV.
We waited until nine, starving. I wanted to get food, but Annie was terrified of being alone, not for her safety, but in case the doctor, or whatever he was, showed up and I wasn’t there.
He didn’t come at nine. Or ten. I called at eleven and there was no answer. At midnight we started to leave, then stayed another hour. At one we went home, though we had paid for the whole night.
Our next step was a group that met in a legendary left-wing church on Long Island to discuss abortion rights, the kind of place, we had learned, to make useful connections. We walked in after it started (Annie was always late, and it caused one of those tense fights in the car) to a man describing the trials of seeking an abortion. He looked nervous and depressed. In fact, everyone in the room looked nervous and depressed, so we felt immediately at home. It was a glimmer of hope, of what I would now call “community.” I was surprised how emotional the conversation was. Everyone spoke passionately about a personal crisis “unless the situation changes.” After two hours, during which Annie raised her hand twice and lost her nerve, someone started leading the group in prayer.
It wasn’t the meeting we thought it was.
As soon as coffee was served we slipped out and discovered that the abortion-rights group had met in a different room, and that the meeting was over. We never figured out what the meeting we attended was about. I thought it might have been Alcoholics Anonymous, but it didn’t seem as how I imagined one to be. Annie theorized it was a group organizing to keep abortion illegal, since a Supreme Court ruling was rumored to be on the horizon.
How could they meet in the same church? We never learned.
The worst part was we had wasted time. Every day, Annie was getting more and more pregnant.
The week after the meeting Annie found a new boyfriend – since she and I weren’t technically in a relationship – but the poor guy didn’t know what hit him. How often do you start a relationship with a woman pregnant from another man and planning an illegal abortion? But Annie was always good at attracting men. It was the one thing she was truly gifted at. Looking back, I see it as the sorry cycle of her life: a magical meeting, a fairy-tale month, and a betrayal so devastating it leaves her weak and vulnerable. Then a new man materializes, exploits the vulnerability created by his predecessor, and after a fairy-tale month finds a way to betray her in an even more devastating way.
Only at this moment does it occur to me that I might have been one of those men. In the past I liked to believe that what we had was different.
Just after the new boyfriend appeared Annie’s friend Cheryl called with a name, someone in Washington. That’s all we wanted, a name.
We discussed who should make the four-hour trip with Annie. I should go, of course. The new guy was not out of the picture, but driving down to Washington for an illegal abortion was too outlandish a first date, even back then, when everyone scorned the very idea of a “date.” Eventually it was agreed that Cheryl would come, to take care of Annie, since we had no idea what the aftereffects would be.
We drove down in one shot, singing songs from Abbey Road and keeping in high spirits. We had an appointment, the place had been recommended, and he was supposed to be a doctor, maybe even licensed in the United States.
The address was on an impoverished street, with the White House peeping out over the sagging roofs. We found the number. It was a used appliance store. This explained why we were supposed to say, “I need a plumbing adjustment on something you sold me.” We shuffled down an aisle to a guy in overalls kneeling before a washing machine with its front panel hanging down.
“I need a plumbing adjustment on a washing machine you sold me.”
“Down the block, Sonny.”
“I mean, ‘on something you sold me.’”
“Next one over, Sonny. Hand me those pliers, will ya?”
I pulled a pair of greasy pliers off the wood floor, put it in his hand, and we went outside. He hadn’t even looked at us. Annie and Cheryl were rattled and asked to wait on the corner. I found the place, steeled myself, and knocked.
A woman in a red robe with thick eye makeup invited me in. I needed to be welcomed and she sensed it, taking my hand and leading me to a couch where the cushions were overly plump but threadbare. Only when the cushions swallowed me up did I realize I was shaking. She sat close, and looked me over.
“Relax, Hon. Anyone seen you come here?”
“Good. We pay in advance, Hon. What you got in mind?”
“I have cash,” I said. “Everything was worked out, I mean the price.”
This made her smile.
“I can see you ain’t no cop,” she said. “That’s pretty damn obvious.”
Given everything going on, I felt flattered.
“Thank you,” I said.
“Sylvie takes very good care of her people,” she said. “Of everything.”
“Where’s the doc?”
I immediately regretted it, in case he wasn’t a doctor.
She smiled again. She was being very patient.
“Price depends on what you want,” she said.
“My girlfriend and her friend are waiting outside.”
“Her friend too? We can do special,” she said, looking me up and down again. “If special’s what you got in mind. You brought like a group?”
“I mean just her.”
I knew something strange was happening, but I was too unsettled to figure it out. I clung to the hope that Sylvie was just some weird medical receptionist, in some weird medical office.
“She needs it?”
“Yes,” I said.
I had forgotten to say the password. Was that the problem?
“In all honesty,” I said, “I need a plumbing adjustment, and it’s on something you sold me a while ago. That’s what I’m here for.”
“Hold on, Hon. Let’s slow down a minute.”
Just then the door burst open. Cheryl leaned in and said, “The hell’ve you been? We found it, it’s further down, and poor Annie’s waiting all alone in this creepy place.”
“She the girlfriend? You kids scared me half to death.”
“Waiting there! It’s not here! And I’m not the girlfriend, by the way!”
“At the address, for God’s sakes,” Cheryl said.
“Further down, Hon,” Sylvie said. “Read the numbers, kids.”
She was the only one in control, and the only one being nice.
“I thought I read the numbers,” I said.
Cheryl and Sylvie exchanged a “typical man” kind of look.
“Need a tissue?” Sylvie asked. “Got ’em, if you want ’em.”
Even more inanely, Cheryl answered, “No thank you, but I do appreciate your asking.”
As I walked out with Cheryl I said, “Let’s hurry. I really feel for Annie. I mean, I can’t stand even to have blood drawn.”
“Listen, goddamn you,” Cheryl said. “You think she’s just rolling up her sleeve and sticking out her goddamn arm?”
Her sobs began anew. She had been crying the whole time and I hadn’t noticed.
“Blood drawn? Listen to me,” Cheryl said, beginning to shout. “It’s her body that everything’s happening to! Not yours! Not mine! Don’t you understand that!”
A woman in a pink housecoat looking down from a window decided to light a cigarette.
We found Annie in an overheated office that looked like a check-cashing place. The room was packed with silent women. Cheryl asked for a bathroom and was told, through bulletproof glass, it was “out of order.” We couldn’t get to Annie, who was sitting in a corner with her coat still on. The only man in the place, and the only other white person besides us, strutted from behind the glass in a lab coat with an asterisk of blood on one lapel. He went directly to Annie. He was furious. He barked a question, and she pointed at me. I watched her shoulders go up and down. I could tell he had been nasty. Annie was very sensitive to people speaking meanly to her.
He stormed over. “You understand we’re not in the charity business?” he said.
Cheryl was still at the door, shaking her head like a disturbed person. Annie worked her way over and began to stroke Cheryl’s hair.
None of the women looked up. They were too exhausted.
I told the man I needed a minute, which made him more furious. I went over to Annie. I couldn’t make a decision. I couldn’t even think.
Annie let go of Cheryl long enough to squeeze my arm. She shrugged, that way she had.
“We are out of here,” she said. “Cheryl’s freaking out, you’re overwhelmed, that guy in the dirty white coat, whoever he is, is a maniac. And they jacked up the price. I can’t trust this place. Let’s split.”
“Just like that?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said. “Just like that.”
“We won’t do it?”
“First of all it suddenly became seven hundred. Plus another fifty for ‘medication.’ Gimme a break!”
On the way to the car I counted our money. I had either handed over a hundred to someone or dropped it. I didn’t know and didn’t care.
Annie sat in the back with Cheryl, so she could take care of her. She had kept stroking Cheryl as we walked to the car. As I threaded through Washington traffic the three of us had a brief spat, as unexpectedly tense and vicious as the fights between Annie and me, about what was written on the storefront. None of us had thought to look.
After Cheryl was asleep, I asked Annie to slide into the front. Very sweetly, she told me she was more comfortable where she was.
This time the address was in the Bronx, possibly a doctor, who had been “hassled by the government” over repeated drug use. Since we had to be there early, Annie slept at my apartment. Having her under my roof brought on an onslaught of tenderness I had never felt for a woman, which I expressed – for the first time in my life – by not trying to make love to her. In the middle of the night, though, Annie came out of my bedroom and crawled into the sleeping bag on my couch, where I had chivalrously chosen to sleep. It was the first time in our lives we could have sex without worrying about pregnancy, and we made love with the same oddly tense, oddly vicious passion that had characterized our fights. We dozed afterward curled up in the sweaty bag, her breath on my neck.
We awoke before the alarm, and squeezed in a bitter fight while dressing (over who had lost the directions, which kept going even after we realized that no one had). Annie pulled on her jeans; since becoming pregnant she hadn’t worn her peasant dresses, just jeans and the same ratty sweatshirt.
In the Bronx I parked in the designated spot on a highway overpass. Three, four, then five cars pulled over near us, young couples like us, one car with two women. I wanted to get out and talk, but Annie said she couldn’t bear to be alone.
After a nerve-racking hour a blue van cruised by, checked us all out, then crept back and stopped beside each car. I handed Annie the cash, seven hundred this time, and she squeezed it into her jeans. When the van came next to us she slid in without greeting the driver or saying goodbye.
I listened to the radio. I watched the traffic on the highway below me freeze, melt, and break apart. At last the blue van nosed across the overpass. A woman who wasn’t Annie climbed out and got into a car. The man waiting twisted his head to make sure nothing was behind him, backed up, and shot onto the highway.
The van drove up two more times, spilling out women. The only car that didn’t drive off right away was the one with another woman waiting.
At last the van with Annie maneuvered next to me. She didn’t signal anything or thank the driver.
My heart sank. Had we been crossed up again?
No, it was done.
On the way back I asked how it was.
“The office stank to high heaven,” she said. “It was filthy.”
“Was he a doctor? Did they speak to you nicely? Did it hurt?”
“It’s over,” she said, pushing air through her nose in a little sneeze to get rid of the stench. “And believe me, I’m fine.”
She rested at my apartment, all the while refusing to tell me anything about what had happened. I tried everything I could think of, but despite my best efforts the next morning she packed up her books and records and announced she was leaving. She stood at the door, kissed me goodbye, then turned and left. She lifted her shoulders and let them fall but didn’t look back once.
Last month my wife marched in an abortion rights rally in Washington, and I couldn’t help but wonder if Annie had been there. She surely had reason to go, though even with all we went through she never became very political. Despite the fury on the surface, the passions that so animated her, nothing seemed to get very deep. But was that really the case? Only decades later when I watched, astonished, as my daughters were born did I realize how significant my experience with Annie had been. Only then did I understand how crucial it was that it was her body everything happened to, not mine. That body seemed different from the one I saw knocking on the door of a party, that I made love to, and that walked out my door with its shoulders rising and falling.
The other body, the one everything happened to, remains invisible, known only to other women, a mystery.
But still, Annie and I were through a lot, some intimate and scary moments, which at the time seemed as intimate and scary as anything life would offer. I wondered – as I kissed my wife goodbye, checked her list for the girls, and saw her drive off with a sign saying, “my body, my choice” – if Annie had ever married, ever had children, and if she ever thought back to those times in the Village and Long Island and the Jersey City motel and the angry doctor (if he was a doctor) in Washington, and the smelly office in the Bronx. And, most of all, if she remembered when we were hiking deep in the woods and she climbed what seemed to be a mountain, and lost her footing and fell, as I watched in silence from safe, solid ground.