This moving post from Akeeyu, though only very peripherally related, got me to thinking about something I don't think about often, hidden away in the thick folds of a very different life. I haven't written much about it--a passing reference once, I think--but now that I have been thinking about it again, I want to get it written down. I would like to ask you a favor, though: This is a very personal post, and I made a decision that some readers might find wrong or immoral. I believe I made the right decision. You are welcome to disagree with me, but you will not change my mind, so please don't leave hurtful comments.
Eighteen years ago today, I was pregnant. I was seventeen, and I was scared. But the story is a long one, if common, and begins a year before, in early 1986.
With the boundaries of my mother's Undoing bleeding, I found myself at loose ends--unsupervised, disillusioned, depressed. My father lived nearby, but we had not spoken much in a couple of years: he was rigid and judgmental; I was fearless and opinionated. Incompatible. We were, as families go, less dysfunctional than simply disparate. Where friends had close family ties of love and hate and shared experiences, we were a loose web with little interaction and no collective identity.
After a rebellious 1984 and a hazy, stoned early 1985, I did what many people do and tried to build a family out of friends and lovers. At sixteen, I was utterly (foolishly, foolishly) certain of my own maturity and common sense, and the family I built was surprisingly good, considering. I spent most of my time at a crash pad rented by older friends, developed intense platonic relationships with unstable, interesting girls, and romantic relationships with troubled but passionate guys. In some strange way, I felt strong and stable in their presence: they relied on me to be the rational one, the one who could be trusted to know, to fix, to understand. It was peculiarly satisfying. And I was doing OK; I had a job most of the time and was going to the local community college, even thriving in some ways.
I would come home to my mother's big house on the hill sometimes to do laundry after class, or to eat when we were low on money, and spend an hour in my nominal room. But this wasn't my domain, and I wanted out.
One night I went to an after-hours club with my friends, a place that called itself Plastic Passion--the kind of underground club that popped up all over downtown L.A. in the mid-eighties, moving from warehouse to warehouse each week, drugs dispensed at the hat-check station if you had the money or connections. A glam band played in one cavernous room, a dance floor pulsed in another, the smell of alkyl nitrites permeated one of the ante-rooms. I was never quite comfortable in these clubs, some small, protective instinct telling me that I didn't quite belong. But it was never enough to keep me from going. And my friends, for the most part, did belong--and I wanted to be part of their world.
When I walked in that night--or morning, I guess it was--I had my usual mixed feelings of anticipation and dread, a dread of stepping over some line, and the anticipation of doing something exciting, meeting someone exciting.
About an hour in, after a couple of drinks, I saw that I was being watched. More than that, really--I was being stared at, unblinkingly, hungrily. He was unusually handsome--beautiful, even. Tall, slender, with broad shoulders, long black hair, high cheekbones and a generous mouth, and large eyes that shimmered in the low light. I was flattered, and frightened, and interested.
Within a minute, he had made his way to where I was standing, grabbed me by the shoulder and pulled me to a quieter room. Looked in my eyes, as corny as it sounds, and told me he was going to be with me, whether I knew it yet or not. That fear of stepping over the line coursed through me, an adrenaline rush, but I told myself it was foolish to retreat--I wanted this--wanted him--didn't I? Why wouldn't I? So I shook it off, and smiled.
And that's how it happened. That's how I met Vile. He was charming, articulate, publicly polite in a private-school manner, but with a hint of mystery and a whiff of danger. Hard to resist. He mentioned that he was on a medication to treat his "problem". I never asked what the "problem" was.
Within two weeks, Vile, claiming to be the voice of reason, had decided that I shouldn't be spending so much time with my friends, that they were a bad influence on me. And what was wrong with living at my mother's, after all? He had heard enough about her to know that there were no real restrictions, no supervision, so why not live in the enormous house on the hill, everything paid for? So what if she's unstable and shooting animal tranquilizers; why would it matter? I'd better move back in, he said. After all, he needed a place to live when he dropped out of university. At twenty-two, it was his third, after self-destructing at Cal and an interim private college. The age difference should have set off an alarm somewhere, for someone, but it didn't.
So, that's what happened. We moved into my mother's house. Vile insinuated himself into all aspects of our lives, and began supplying my mother with cheaper drugs; I didn't want to know where he got them. He also started working for her business. And his temper began to show. It appeared in little ways at first--raising his voice to waitresses when his steak was too rare, following drivers who had cut him off on the freeway, that sort of thing. Within a few months, it had escalated: threatening, bullying, intimidating. And there was the jealousy, his irrational certainty that I had snuck out in the night to meet someone, that I was carrying on with some nameless guy in my literature class. Predictably, he began to beat me, very carefully so as not to damage anything visible. Initially, it would happen when I had done something wrong; when I had forgotten something, said something he didn't like, made a minor decision he didn't agree with. Soon, he moved on to beatings that he called "preventatives"--like when he had to go away for a couple of days to see his family and wanted to make sure I didn't fuck around while he was gone.
I was very young, yes, but I was not entirely stupid. I knew that this was wrong, that I should get out, but there was this foolishly stubborn part of me that believed things would get better and didn't want to admit to my failure. I thought of it that way, too--my failure. One night, in a fit of repentance, he agreed that it needed to stop and that he thought living with my mother was the problem--that she had become a bad influence on both of us, made him crazy. So in late 1986 we moved out, to a cheap apartment nearby in East L.A. He gave me an engagement ring that he had bought for his last girlfriend and said he was going to be different.
Of course, moving out did not stop the beatings. He was now even less fettered--I could make all the noise in the world and no mother or stepfather would come to my rescue from another wing of the house. And he stopped taking his meds.
My main reaction to his violence was to close myself off as much as possible from him, to protect some tiny pebble of self-respect. I would sleep with him rarely, and only when I thought it would prevent a beating. Since he had taken up crystal meth, he was, fortunately, rarely sexual--the one silver lining. But at this point, his tactics changed. One night, instead of bruising or biting or shaking, he dragged me out of bed and dumped a pitcher of ice water over me, then stood and watched while I cleaned it up. He told me that I was stupid, lazy, that I'd never amount to anything in life if it weren't for him. Perfectly ordinary abuser tactics, not that I knew it then.
One night, there was another abrupt behavior shift. I was asleep, and woke up to Vile sitting on me with his hands around my throat. Not pressing, just holding, quite gently. When I looked at him, he gave a small squeeze, and said, "Just remember." Then he laid down next to me and began to cry. His crying scared me. He said he didn't want to do it, but he knew I didn't love him and that he couldn't accept that. So I did what I thought I ought to do and, swallowing my bile, tried to comfort him, told him I loved him. When he made to undress me, I didn't resist. It was a small price to pay, I remember thinking, to get through the night safely.
The next day, I began thinking of escape. Since Vile was still working for my mother and still supplying her with drugs, I knew I couldn't go to her. He was closer to her now than I was, and she trusted him. He had driven away all of my friends--another textbook abuser tactic--and I was embarrassed to go to them anyway. My father was absolutely not an option, my sister was spending her junior year abroad in Florence and my brother was living in London.
There was one person I considered asking for help. She was a teacher at the college, and I had been taking aerobics and ballet from her for a year. Once, she noticed bruises on my legs that were showing through the white leggings. I laughed it off, blamed them on clumsiness. When I came in after that with a bite mark on my upper arm, ill-concealed by a loose tee shirt, she took me aside after class and insisted that I tell her what was going on. I said I'd been babysitting a ten-year-old who got mad at me for turning off the television. At the time, I was just too ashamed, I couldn't face up to it, and she didn't press. But now I wanted to tell her, hoping she could help me find a way out. I counted down the days till our next class--three weeks, it was Christmas break--and decided to tell her then, ask her advice, her help.
By then, however, I knew I was pregnant. And I thought it was too late.
I realized it a week or so after my period was due. As I had never been perfectly regular, it didn't worry me at first. Initially, I thought I had the flu, throwing up uncontrollably. When it didn't go away after a few days, the truth settled on me like thick fog. I went to a clinic in mid-January and got the test. When the result was in, the nurse took me into a back room and told me. I asked how quickly I could get an abortion; she said, if I had enough money, I could get one within two weeks. If I didn't have the money, it would take a while. I would need to apply for MediCal and wait for them to process the paperwork, then wait for an appointment at the clinic they worked with.
Being overwhelmed with shame at having gotten myself into this position, I did not want to tell anyone, even if there was someone to tell, much less hit them up for money. Vile said he didn't have the $350 it would cost, so I started the MediCal process. It took six weeks to get the paperwork approved and the appointment made. By now it was March. I had been violently sick the whole time, unable to eat, unable to return to school, unable to work. I had lost nearly twenty pounds off my already skinny frame and had a hard time standing for long. All I could think about was getting this over with, getting back to normal, so I could find a way to leave Vile and work my way back to some sort of acceptable life.
On the day of the procedure, I was in a prep room with six other girls, most younger than me, and some with worse stories. We had a long wait, these girls and I, and I heard things from them that horrified me. One said she'd been raped by her stepfather's brother while her mother was in the next room. Her mother had thrown her out of the house when she found out she was pregnant. One was thirteen, her body still half-developed; she was pregnant from her first sexual encounter, the result of a gang initiation.
Later, as the anesthesia started to pump into my hand, when most women might take a soul-searching moment to ask themselves, Is this really what I should do?, I thought of nothing but oblivion, and relief.
In the end, Vile used the abortion to keep me tied to him for the next two years, threatening to tell everyone that I had "killed his child" as well as threatening to implicate me in his illicit drug business and more recent petty thievery if I tried to leave him. We moved a couple of times, he made half-hearted attempts at reforming his abusive nature once or twice, and with each month I felt less and less connected to everything around me. Vile's morals and his sanity continued to degrade, till he lost it in the office one day and smashed the place up, threatening the eighty-two-year-old bookkeeper with a letter opener after raking my face with a brutal punch, his ring tearing a line through my cheek. I called 911, and before they arrived Vile said he would kill me if I pressed charges. I didn't, and the cops didn't insist, pretended not to notice the swelling and blood. But a week later, on his birthday, I said I was going to pick up his cake, grabbed my purse and left for good. It was less a decision than an impulse.
The story with Vile doesn't end there, but much of the rest can be summarized quickly. The day I left, I headed to a childhood friend's house and begged her to take me in. I told her everything. She was shocked and forgiving of my longtime negligence and understood. One day, Vile--who had been trying to hunt me down for several weeks--finally spotted my car in Pasadena, then followed me when I drove to her house. My friend and her mother refused to let him in; he threatened to kill himself on their porch if they didn't. They held firm, and a part of me wished he would do it. A big part.
A few weeks later, I learned that an acquaintance of mine had moved in with him, and while I warned her (uselessly) and felt awful for her, I was fundamentally relieved. He had someone new to focus on, and he stopped following me. A few months after that, I heard that she was pregnant. When she was five months along, he beat her in front of her friends one night, kicking her in the stomach and telling her he didn't believe the child was his. He spit on her. She was hospitalized, but eventually gave birth to a healthy baby girl. Two years later, he abducted his daughter, was caught and served time in jail.
I moved back into my mother's house for a few months--couldn't stay on my friend's couch forever--and started dating again, but I was still in a bad place. I stopped eating, in what I now realize was an attempt at control. One morning, after being dumped by a nice guy who said I was too intense, I woke up and knew I had to take some sort of drastic action. I packed the car and moved to San Francisco that night, and have been in the Bay Area ever since.
Once in a while, like today, I think about what my life would have been if I'd had the baby in those circumstances. What the baby's life would have been. Would I have been able to love Vile's child when Vile himself so sickened me, terrified me? How would I have kept him away from my little boy, my little girl? I don't know; I just don't know. And then I imagine being seventeen and pregnant in a different reality, with a normal boyfriend and a supportive family. Would I have made the same choice? I still don't know. Pointless to wonder about this, and self-indulgent, but the imaginings sneak in uninvited.
All these years later, as I sit here in Oakland leading this staid and happy life, full of gardening and crossword puzzles, birdwatching and J. and infertility, I have a hard time believing that this stuff ever happened to me, that I ever had this relationship, that I was ever so helpless or so frightened. Or that I was ever pregnant. As though I tried on someone else's life for size one time, and it didn't really fit.