Sammy was a dresser. The night I first saw him, he wore bellbottoms that flared at the knee. They were not jeans, either. They were satin with satin inserts in patterns of stars that swayed flaglike when he moved. This man, I will mention, was gorgeous.
I walked up to him and said, “Buy me a drink?” Something so mature, I thought, like what they do in movies. Only we were in a teen dance hall called the Prison, which was new in Minneapolis. It was a place where mostly black kids came to dance. This was a new thing, too, that black kids and the white kids from my end of the city hung out in the same club, new for 1968 anyway. I wondered what my parents would say if they knew where I was. Probably they’d say No. Not for any reason. After all they had their own secret darknesses surrounding what their country, Germany, had done with the Jews, but they’d have done what all the other parents were doing: Just say No.
At the Prison you could buy Coke or you could buy Seven Up. That was it. Sammy laughed hard when I asked for a drink, which made me laugh too. He held his hand up to cover his teeth and said, “You’ll have to dance with me then.” To be chosen, even just noticed, by the best looking man in the place made me go to pieces. And it made me shy. I wasn’t practiced at being noticed, and I kept thinking he’d just slip into the crowd as soon as he could. But when he stayed, looking like he was about to laugh again, I straightened my shoulders and ran through the dance moves I’d practiced in my room. At the very least I could look cool, even if he was about to leave. But Sammy took my hand, and when his pant legs spun wide, when his head snapped in synch to the music, I felt something wild inside me. Something burning. I wanted to dance the rest of the night, just with him.
Two women danced beside us. The one I remember, the one who called me a bitch, could have been a white girl, except that her picked-out afro and the dark-skinned girl with her, made me think I might be wrong. She danced funky, like she knew what she was doing. Her halter-top slipped off her shoulders so that you could sort of see her bra. I wanted to be just like her in that instant. I half-smiled at her.
“Tchoo lookin’ at?” There was no mistaking it was me she was talking to.
“You, I guess.” I hoped I sounded way more confident than I felt. I hoped it didn’t show that I’d never spoken to a black girl before.
“Bitch! You a fuckin’ whore. Git on over there,” she said, pointing to the back of the dance floor where some boys I recognized from my school stood. No doubt she was unhappy about the boy, Sammy, who I wondered if she had been his girlfriend, and who, in my panic I could not see in the crowd anymore. The girl grabbed my hair then and yanked my head, hard. It hurt. I was suddenly madder than I knew how to feel. I mean, no one had ever done that before.
There were girls circling us now, tough-looking bad-girls, chanting, “Who’s the bitch? Who’s the bitch?” The girl with the blonde afro got up close to my face and reached her arm back. I’d never been in a fight; I’d only ever seen them in the school parking lot between boys. But I curled my fists. I’d never been called a whore before either. I didn’t even know what one was. I’d never even had a boyfriend. I’d kissed a boy, I necked, actually, and came home past my curfew. I sneaked out through my window. Did that constitute whore? And if it did, who was she, anyway? Bitch!
I was on, and I had no idea what to do. I still didn’t see Sammy, although he told me later he was rounding up friends. He liked a fight, and a catfight was all the better. I thought about ripping afro-girl’s halter-top down to expose her dumb Maidenform, or spitting at her, I was that pent up, when suddenly Sammy appeared from the darkness with a ring of guys, all looking cool and tough in short jackets and flapping pant legs. “Let’s get out of here,” Sammy said, grabbing my hand. It was such a classy thing to do. I imagined he even had a car. I sneered in the direction of the girl with the bra straps and her pack of friends and hoped I looked cool, and glad I was saved, especially since it was black Rhett Butler who was doing the saving.
Turns out it wasn’t his car. In fact it wasn’t anyone’s car. Charlie, his friend, had “borrowed” it, which actually meant it was stolen, but I didn’t know that right away. Sammy turned on KUXL—“KU extra-LARGE.” Sitting on the Dock of the Bay was playing. He leaned back in his seat and looked over at me. Then he laughed that same laugh and said, “You’re a pretty tough chick.” I didn’t know what to say so I just nodded my head to the music. “Get over here.” Sammy said, putting his arm around my shoulders and scooted me across the bench seat, all the while staring straight ahead as if he needed to watch for traffic. Or the light was red. There was neither. Before us was a parking lot full of cars and a glaring halogen streetlight.
His gaze was still out there when he moved his hand to my waist. It was a move like he was straightening himself, but his hand stayed and I didn’t mind. I liked how it felt against my cotton blouse, which he started unbuttoning. As the buttons fell open, more and more of me was exposed to the parking lot. Anyone walking by could see a skinny girl’s belly and a yellow somewhat-bigger-than-training bra embroidered in pink butterflies. Anyone in my place might have said, “Hey, wait a minute, buddy.” Or “Fuck off.” But I did neither. I felt heat. His nimble fingers went to my jeans and tugged at the zipper. Sammy knew how to unzip zippers. His hand touched my panties right at the crotch. I’d never felt this thing, this aching between my legs, and suddenly I thought, “Maybe this is sex.”
My friends, Connie, Debbie, Patty, Tracy, and Sally Chong and I had a bet going. Well, it was more of a challenge: who was going to be the last to lose her virginity. Tracy had done it at an outdoor concert; Patty slept with a guy in a commune somewhere in Coon Rapids one weekend; and Sally Chong skipped school often to be with Russell and there was no question why. That left Debbie, Connie and me. Maybe it was my turn.
Sammy asked if I’d like to get in the back, it’s more comfortable, and we scrambled over the high front seat. I didn’t actually know how sex was done. I knew it had to do with a penis. I’d seen one before. I’d seen a hard one before on the guys we hung out with in Debbie’s brother’s basement with its walls lined in Indian bedspreads and a TV on permanent test pattern. They had pulled out their cocks one night, and we lifted our blouses to show our breasts. It’s all we did. It was hot. I thought about that night for a long time.
I knew sex had to do with a vagina too. I just didn’t know that the penis went in, I mean inside, the vagina, like all the way in. I didn’t know this. I thought it just bumped up against you, because when Sammy’s penis did just that it felt so good. But then on one of his next tries, he pushed it hard and it slipped all the way in and it hurt and it felt good and he pumped it in and out and I didn’t know what he was doing or for how long this will go. And then he said something very loud in my ear that I didn’t understand and he held my head in his hands, hard, like he was squeezing a grapefruit. It kind of even hurt like the pushing did. And then he collapsed on top of me. It was a long time before he raised himself on his elbow. “You’re so young,” he said, and lay back with his mouth so close, I could feel his warm breath against my cheek.
We stayed like that, entwined, in the backseat, not talking for a long time. I finally told him I needed to go home, could he drive me. He said he couldn’t. He didn’t have a car, and that’s when he explained Charlie. I didn’t think this was wrong. I didn’t think much at all. I thought only how much I ached for what just happened and how much I wanted it again. I asked if he’d call me, and he said yes.
Sammy never called, but my period was late. Debbie drove me to Planned Parenthood in Minneapolis on a snowy night. It was my birthday, a night on which I should have celebrated my sweet sixteen. Or done my homework, or slept, instead. When I was told I was positive, I didn’t burst out crying, like any other just-turned-sixteen-year-old. I stood up straight, and, like with that girl on the dance floor, I knew it was show time.
The nurse was kind when I asked, what should I do? “Isn’t your father a doctor?” she answered. By the look on my face, she knew this was not a solution. “Perhaps you could try Y.E.S.” She sucked in her lips. I knew she wanted to say more but saying more was trouble. Abortion was illegal in 1968. In fact, abortion would not be legal for five more years. A lot of things were still like that. We still had a draft in 1968 that took boys to war who weren’t even allowed to vote.
Youth Emergency Service was a 24-hour hotline for, well, Youth. You could call if you were having a bad acid trip, or you needed a lawyer or somewhere to crash . . . or you were pregnant. Someone would direct you somewhere, help you somehow. So call Y.E.S. was what I did.
There was a doctor who lived in Edina, I was told. I should go to his address; I could find out more there. He must be a wealthy doctor, I thought, because only rich people lived in Edina. I borrowed my mother’s Volkswagen; I told her I needed to go to the university for a school project, and she believed me. Or she didn’t believe me but didn’t want to know. She was into a parenting mode where she waited for me nights at the front door, surprising me with a flashlight in my eyes. She must have read about it in the newspaper. “See if their eyes dilate.” It could mean drugs, or worse yet, it could mean the whole shebang. Your daughter may be a hippy.
The doctor’s house was magnificent. The expansive lawn, covered in an undulating blanket of white, looked like a park dotted with trees. The driveway curved behind a grove of pines and disappeared. It intimidated me, so I parked in the street and walked. At either side of the entry were two ceramic statues of boys, each holding a ring, supposedly for your horse. They wore yellow shorts and red vests, and had black hands and faces with red lips and whiter than white eyes. Slave boys. I didn’t see the irony in it, that the doctor was Jewish. I’d seen his name, Eisenstein, on the mailbox. I didn’t see the irony; I was only too glad to be here.
Inside was a spacious foyer with a glass partition leading to the rest of the house. I was right. It was a rich house. A rich house that was weirdly prejudiced, and I wondered if the stone boys were merely there because they looked good against the white stucco. I remembered driving through neighborhoods with my parents when I was young. “Look at these houses,” my father used to say. “At least $100,000!” I was old enough to know that was a lot of money. “Das sind wohl Juden,” was added as a final sigh, meaning such a house was out of the question for a family like us. It wasn’t until high school when Mark Rosenblum became my friend that I understood Juden did not translate as “millionaire.”
Stacks of mimeographed papers sat on a side table with a small hand-written sign that said, Help Yourself. As the Y.E.S. voice had said, they contained information about how to get . . . an abortion, although the word was “procedure.” It was illegal to give advice about abortions in 1968, and I understood in that moment how very kind Dr. Eisenstein was. He made no money on it, how could he? And he was risking his practice, his family’s security, and, who knows, maybe even his life. He was a good man, even if slave boys decorated his lawn.
I needed $200, I read, for the flight, plus $100 for the procedure if it was within the first month. It would be an additional $100 for each week after that. I was to show up at the Minneapolis/St. Paul airport at 3:15 on any given Wednesday. A woman wearing a yellow coat would find me and direct me to my flight. I’d be gone for three days. “Bring an ID,” the papers said. “You’ll be going to Mexico.”
The ID part was not all that easy. Whereas most needed only a driver’s license for Mexico, because I was not born in the US, I needed a real passport. The problem was, I didn’t have it. It was hidden somewhere amongst other “important” family papers. I’d have to search some night when Papa and Mama were out, or some afternoon when Mama was grocery shopping. Or, I’d say I needed my passport for a school project, but that could be risky. What kind of project?, like our right to be here had come into question. I’d figure something out. Something had to work.
The next issue was even more problematic: At six weeks pregnant, I’d need $500, which was almost as much as $50,000. I didn’t have it. A teenager, all I had came from the dollar-per-week allowance I easily spent within a day. I’d have to find it somehow, and it would have to be quick. I was not about to get to where I was four weeks, five weeks, past that first month. I just wasn’t.
I found out who Charlie was and where he and Sammy lived and started showing up after school, showing up sometimes in the day, skipping school. Sammy said he was sorry he hadn’t called. Something like he lost the slip of paper with my phone number on it.
There was another friend living with them named Freddie. Freddie was nice, too nice really, to be living with Charlie and Sammy. He hung out with me when Sammy slept, which often happened. We’d make love and then he’d fall asleep. I’d go into the kitchen to light a cigarette off the gas burner and sit on one of the ripped vinyl chairs and smoke. Freddie, one night, leaned on the Formica table and told me to stop hanging around with Sammy, that Sammy was no good. That he cut bike locks and sold the bikes for a living. “Charlie’s even worse. Stole a whole pallet of blue jeans from a delivery truck. What kind of asshole does that?”
This didn’t bother me. My friends, from my neighborhood, were doing the same sort of thing. Dennis and Rick robbed a convenience store in South St. Paul. With guns. They were doing it to buck the Establishment, they said, to get back at the Pig, who everyone knew needed to be bucked. They were only BB guns, anyway, they said, but I didn’t believe them.
“You know why Sammy hangs out with you?” Freddie said once, not unkindly.
I didn’t have an answer. “Why?”
“White chicks are easy.”
“Yeah, and black guys have big dicks,” I said. I shocked myself. I didn’t know this for a fact. It was just something Debbie told me. Her brother told her. Freddie laughed and told me I should look around. There was better than Sammy out there. Maybe he was coming on to me and I didn’t know it.
I didn’t want to stay away from Sammy. Sammy’s arms were muscular when we lay together. He shared his cigarettes with me, and suggested we drop acid sometime. He took me to see James Brown. Surely someone there other than me was white, but I didn’t see them. What I did see was how well dressed the men looked in their soft leather shoes, like from Italy. It felt so cool being out with a boy so much older than me. Years later I will think back on this time and wonder why I would choose more of Sammy rather than take care of the dire thing plaguing me. I still wonder that. Then I think of my father who fathered five children other than the three in our family, and I think I am my father’s daughter after all. Maybe not thinking is hereditary.
It was in our third week that I told Sammy about Planned Parenthood. I didn’t want to look like I was desperate, or that money was the only reason I came around. I was desperate, but money wasn’t the only reason. I’d felt close to him by now and felt I could ask him to help. Sammy had money. I didn’t care if it came from stolen pallets.
The first thing he said was, “How d’you know it’s mine?” The next thing he said was, “Maybe I want to keep it.” The third thing he said was nothing. He just laughed, but this time it was a sickening laugh, like, You gotta be kidding me. After that he refused to answer the phone when I called, and I called every day when I got home from school. I started feeling really desperate now. When it came to $500, Sammy had been my only idea.
Everyone knew Mr. McBride, except me. Whenever I heard his name around school, it was like he was really far-out, always understanding kids’ problems. “You should talk to him,” Mark told me.
“I don’t even know him. Why would he help me?” The joint kept popping, making us jump to avoid burning our jeans. We were on a blanket looking out over the Mississippi and were supposed to be doing research for APES—American Politics, Economics and Sociology. The problem was we already knew all of it sucked, the American politics and so forth, so we spent most of our time not in class and not in the library, rather hanging out, talking about other things. We figured we’d come up with a good paper in the end. It would be something about the horseshit we knew all about, the draft being only one of the many subjects. For Mark it was a myth anyway. He’d go to Canada or pretend he was mental when it came time for his physical—wipe his butt right in front of the doctor. He had it all planned. He’d melt chocolate and stick it in his underpants and eat it right off his hand. Huh. Maybe our paper could be about how to get out of the draft, ten things you should know. We’d figure it out, but today was not the day. Today I needed to talk, and I needed to talk bad. I mean I had a problem much worse than APES, or the draft.
“He bailed Jingles out of jail,” Mark said. “That ought to tell you something. No one bails Jingles out of jail. He’s in too often.”
“Okay,” I said. What did I have to lose? Another day? I didn’t have another day. I needed to get to Mexico. “I’ll talk to him.”
Mr. McBride passed me in the hall that afternoon. He was tall so he was easy to spot. He looked like a lanky leprechaun: springy red hair and a face with cheeks so round they could have been peaches. “Mr. McBride?” I said over a swarm of heads.
“Yes.” he said. It was an affirmation, not a question, and he stopped walking instantly. His metallic blue eyes looked at me so directly, I burst out crying. I mean I didn’t just burst out crying, I wept uncontrollably. I couldn’t speak. Nothing came out of my mouth, even though I tried hard to say something. “Are you pregnant?” he asked. I nodded, snot stringing from my nose. “I’ll help you,” he said.
I wiped my face with my full hand. “You’ll help me?”
“Let’s go into the library,” he said. By this, I knew it was show time.
The conference room was glassed in on three sides with windows on the fourth. Mr. McBride motioned for us to sit in the two swiveling wooden chairs, then he grabbed both my hands. His eyes, blue upon blue, looked straight into me and did not look away. He let me catch up to myself and wipe the makeup from beneath my eyes. I was sure it was smeared deep black by now. I straightened each leg of my jeans with my shoes. “How much do you need?” he finally asked.
“Five hundred dollars.” If I had hesitated or just hinted at the amount, it would never have come out straight. Five hundred dollars was exactly the minimum. If he knew how much it was, he could help me figure out how to get it. Perhaps he knew some people with money, or knew someone to borrow it from, or maybe he had a job for me, so I could earn it. Although it would have to be real quick. I only had one more week.
“I’ll give it to you.”
He said it just like that, something so unexpected, so outside of any possibilities I could have dreamed, and yet it was so much the answer I needed.
“You’ll give it to me?”
“I can’t let my wife know. She won’t understand. It’s money we put aside for new furniture.”
I sat for a good minute with incredulity running through my veins. Thank you was not going to cut it. Thank you, thank you, twice over, wasn’t where I was going either. I finally said, “I’ll pay you back every cent. I’ll get a job as soon as I’m back. In fact I’ll start looking around this afternoon.”
“You’re the nicest person I’ve ever met.” I could hardly get the words out, because I was weeping again, real hard. It was more gesture and splutter than words. I wished for some paper so I could write it out: Mr. McBride? You belong amongst the angels. You have just saved a life, mine. I will make you proud of me, I promise to . . . and then I would write a litany of things I’d do in gratitude.
He said, “Mistakes can be fixed.” He patted my hand, and said, “I need to get to class.”
I laid my head on the desk and let tears soak the carved initials lying beneath my face: TL loves MM. A scratched-out heart encircled them. Maybe TL didn’t love MM anymore.
My next problem was the excuse. How would I get out of the house for three whole days and have my parents not know where I was? I fabricated a ski-trip story. I was going with Debbie, whose family was already in Montana, waiting for us to drive out. Oh, and there was no phone in that cabin in Montana. My parents liked Debbie and we were leaving early on Wednesday, this still being Christmas vacation, and so my parents went along with it. It’s hard to believe they went along with it, but people sort of didn’t do the expected thing in those days. They didn’t call other parents. Or maybe it was my parents who didn’t call other parents. Maybe it was their German-ness, and part of becoming American, all out, was to let your daughter do what her American friends did, the way they did it.
I was on a ladder in my parents’ bedroom rummaging through cupboards when I heard the front door. I had just found my passport in a box full of snapshots waiting to be pasted into albums. I’d stopped searching long enough to look through the ones of me as a baby. They must have been taken all on one day because in each one I was wearing the same knit hat with a V that dropped so low, it reached the bridge of my nose. I’d bet my grandmother had knit it and sent it to America. In one of them, I was sitting up in an old-fashioned buggy with a large, curved rattan handle, big wheels and a pulled-back frilly canopy. I was probably four months old, a fat baby. My hands were stretched and my eyes were focused on the mattress in front of me, like I was about to grab something—a futile baby-act, reaching but always missing that toy, that doll, that piece of colored fuzz. The sun was bright, and then I wondered if the photo was even taken in America. I hadn’t come to this country until I was ten months old. It must have been in Sweden, where I was born. No wonder the buggy looked old-fashioned.
But the front door had opened and I quickly shut the box, grabbed my US passport, and scurried down the ladder. I assumed it was my mother back from the store, or whatever she did during the long days she was home, no husband, no eyes to shine flashlights at. I’d be cool, tell her I was home early and I’d spin an excuse, like a school project. But it wasn’t my mother; it was Audrey.
I always thought of my sister with red hair, like Little Orphan Annie, but she was blonde, like we all were blonde. I always saw her with her stockings mismatched, Pippi Longstocking-like, too, but today she was cute, wearing jeans with raw edges and an Indian-embroidered shirt, something Papa bought her in San Francisco (where he visited a girlfriend). She even wore patchouli oil and I wondered how she knew about that. Only hippies knew about that.
Audrey didn’t ask why I was home. I didn’t ask her either. We began talking. It was not often we did this. For whatever reason, we were not close. I hated her, actually, although now I could not tell you why. There exists a photo of my mother with her darling new baby draped in swaddling blankets on her lap. Her eyes gaze lovingly at this child. Next to her is a girl, me, four years old, wearing a Trachtenkleid, German for “traditional dress.” It is clearly a Swedish traditional dress, likely a gift from my Swedish oma, because it’s brilliant yellow, the kind only Sweden claims as a personal invention. Tied around her waist is a white apron with red embroidered flowers. The girl in the picture is wearing a hat with that same V intersecting her eyebrows. This is not what I notice first when I look at the photo, though. What I see first is the frown and crunched eyebrows and lips like an upside-down U. One of my hands is up under the hanging blanket. I imagine I was pinching that baby’s foot, hard. I imagine I was thinking: When everything was going so well, my mama and papa all to myself, what business does she have showing up? Audrey paid for it the rest of our child-lives. I rarely talked to her and wanted even less to do with her. But today we hung out like it was natural all along to be friends.
Audrey told me she and some friends had skipped school. She wondered if I knew what a “joint” was, that someone had told her about it. Was it marijuana? she wondered. In that moment, she looked so innocent, and young. In that moment I loved her, like a sister. In that moment I wished more than anything I could be in her place and be the one to ask, innocently, about pot and skip school just because my friends were doing it. What if all I had to worry about was getting busted for that, and not about getting to Mexico on Wednesday?
We sat on the floor right there at the front door, both of us cross-legged. I told her, yes, she should try pot. In fact I had a Sucrets box full of joints in my purse. When I opened it and looked at the ones I had rolled, perfectly, something Mark had taught me, how fat they were, I flashed on Sammy. On how he didn’t have a Sucrets box. He kept his joints real flat inside a double-album cover, the kind you used to screen your seeds. His double-albums were never John Lennon, either. Jimi Hendrix, yes, but not Joe Cocker. Sucrets boxes were a white person’s way of keeping joints I figured. Sammy’s were noticeably skinnier. I thought it was because marijuana was considered expensive in the black man’s world, but it was not that at all. Those joints got you blitzed, nothing like the stuff in West St. Paul that mostly just made you silly.
“You’ve probably never been stoned,” I said, handing her one.
“I’ve been once.” Audrey looked at what I put in her hand and said, “Well, not really, because I didn’t really know how to do it. I didn’t know I needed to inhale. This is nice looking.”
“Thanks,” I said. “I made it myself.” We both giggled. “You can’t possibly know what being stoned is like by trying it once,” I said. “It’s like being a tourist for a day.”
“Like Oma’s,” Audrey said, catching on to the “tourist” comment. “Like, do you ever get tripped up trying to tell people what Germany smells like?”
“I so do! I so remember it! Like cars there fart. It gags me, and no one in their overcoats and bent heads seems to notice, either. Mama says it’s the diesel gasoline, the Benzin. It smells like rotten dead stuff. From the farms, you know.”
“Yeah. And the way she says ‘Dieselöl . . .’ ” Audrey squeezed her lips into an exaggerated O when she said Öl, sounding really German which made me laugh.
“Audrey?” I don’t know what made me do this. I will regret it in time, but I needed to talk about this thing, about how sick I felt most of the time. “You won’t tell, will you? I was looking for my passport just now . . .”
“Are you running away?” she asked, innocently. A girl of twelve, how could she not look innocent? She knew what it was like, how it hurt when Papa hit, how frightening it was to come home to the torrents of words he used against Mama. How he pushed her and her face bled. How we hid in our closet, worried if she left (which she often threatened to do) as he kicked and kicked, thud, thud, against her stomach. I recalled that scene in this moment, but I didn’t bring it up. No, we never talked about how he had burst into our room, the drunk man named Papa, red in the eyes. He took one look at the three children—I must have been nine, Audrey five and Kiku four—and stomped out, back to making more thuds and more of her sobbing, Hilf mir! “Now look what you’ve done! You woke the children!” he screamed. She ran out the door in her nightshirt. This was what I couldn’t take. That she would choose the cold and leave us. After that night, no one in the house talked. It seemed for weeks there was silence. Our mother had puffy eyes that morning. I wondered how she could even see. I wanted so badly to say thank you for coming home again, but she was in her own world, making us toast American style with white bread instead of the brown stuff she usually insisted on.
I said, “No. I’m not running away, exactly. I’m getting on a plane to Mexico. Will you stand by me when I say I’m going to ski with Debbie? In Montana? Say you know all about it, that her parents invited me. Okay?”
“I still don’t get it,” she said.
“Ohhhh . . . ” breathed from her blameless mouth. “What will you do?”
“That’s the point. I need an abortion. Don’t tell, okay?” It was the moment of disclosure, and I felt for the first time a companionship, a bond, with this girl who’d been my sister all along.
We did eventually get stoned with Debbie, Connie, Patty and Sally Chong in Debbie’s mother’s Dodge Dart. My friends were psyched to show Audrey exactly how it was done. We made sure to instruct her how to roll a joint perfectly round, how you hold the hit in as long as possible, even cough through your nose if you have to. We were on a cliff and stared at the lights of St. Paul. Blink, blink.
Audrey will, in only a few months, be accused of prostituting and sent away to foster care. She had not had a boyfriend, she was twelve; she had never been kissed. But this was our father, someone capable of inventing . . . anything. Who knows how it all happened, that she told them my secret, but there will be a time when my parents knew. What happened to me? In time I will be sent to a mental institution. As I said, my father could invent anything.
I packed a suitcase with ski clothes. At the bottom I hid one summer dress and a pair of sandals. Debbie picked me up wearing her ski suit, and we drove straight to the airport where she gave me a long hug and said, It’s almost over.
Once inside, my eyes drifted up to the ceiling. How many stories? I felt swallowed by the immensity. People rushed past, there were voices coming from loudspeakers, and I was about to fly, alone. I shouldn’t be scared, I’ve flown before, I kept telling myself. Remember to eat, so I don’t throw up. Ask questions, this is not a time to be shy. And then I saw it. The yellow coat. It was a cliché, the way it hung open with its loose belt, the way she maneuvered toward me, like this was some secret mission. I guess in a way it was. She never introduced herself but curtly asked for my money, which I handed over in two crisp one hundred dollar bills. I was proud of this.
The woman gave no how-are-you, nothing of small talk; she just motioned that I should accompany her to the desk. There, she told the attendant what flight I was on, and that I was part of a group fare. It was all so bewildering and fast that I didn’t notice the attendant at first. It was Freddie. Freddie! Who’d gotten the job with the airlines he’d told me about. Our eyes locked in recognition, but neither of us said a thing. He must have known the covert-ness of this journey, or else I embarrassed him, because his head jerked to his paperwork. He handed me the red four-page ticket and pointed in the direction of the gate. Then he said, “Next, please.”
I was at the NW terminal. Northwest Airlines, Freddie would have said, making clear it was an airline I was flying. His airline that, because of Affirmative Action, made him the first black man I’d ever seen standing behind an airline counter. Only he would now say Black man, capitalizing on his new identity, an employee with a real job that didn’t include pallets of jeans.
Minneapolis to Mexico City via Dallas.
I used to love this terminal in a familiar sort of way. In times past, I’d come here to fly to Germany. It was the only time I ever flew, and it was always an adventure, visiting cousins and grandparents, and always a time away from my father. This is how I came to love this terminal. Our father was never with us. He was somewhere else, working, and yet . . . and yet, he’d show up in Germany, where we were in Lübeck, like he’d been just down the street all along. As it was, he was just down the street all along. This girlfriend, one we wouldn’t learn about until we were adults, lived around the corner from his parents, my Oma and Opa.
I used to love this terminal, but now, I also keenly respected it. I was now in it with a new purpose. It was my gateway to a freedom. My body would belong to me again. Those frightful thoughts of what was growing inside me, the hatred I felt, would be gone because of this terminal. For that I was psyched. On the other hand, I had a familiar icy feeling inside my gut. I was terrified, if I told the truth.
Every passenger at the gate was a woman, none looking older than 25. I was sixteen by fourteen days. How old did I look? I found a seat and wondered how this would go.
How it would go was we deplaned in Dallas. There we were to wait for the next flight, something I had not expected, and the lady in yellow was nowhere to be seen. I finally asked two girls who seemed friendlier than the others if they knew what was happening. I needed to get to Mexico City, I said. They both laughed and said they were on their way there too. They then told me they had flown out from New York and had been on a plane since six in the morning. How old was I anyway? I hesitated. Sherry reached out and took me in her arms before I could answer. “I’m in the same boat, honey. Hang out with us.” I knew it was Sherry, because I overheard her friend saying, “Share some of that, Sherry,” like a rhyme, play-grabbing at a Cracker Jack’s box. Sherry was a tall girl. Stout, my mother would say. The word in German is apart, which means striking but not beautiful, strikingly attractive. Noticeable.
Sherry’s friend handed me the prize, a jumping jack that fell to pieces when I pressed the bottom. How appropriate. Sherry’s friend’s name was Jackie I learned, and from then on we were best of friends, for at least the weekend, and planned to room together in Mexico City.
The loudspeaker announced, now boarding. Two men, no older than Jackie or Sherry, stood behind the desk and called each of the passengers, name by name, and each, as she approached, handed her ticket over and walked down the gangway. These men loved their job, you could tell. They joked. They came around the desk and took the tickets with both hands, then bowed slightly, like a pantomime. Sherry and Jackie informed me these guys “knew.” That a plane like this flew every Wednesday, always full of women in the same condition. It was a secret that wasn’t so secret.
They called Jackie’s name. Then they called Sherry. Then there was no one else to call and I was still sitting, now alone. In a panic I approached the men (No time to be shy!) and held out my ticket. “I should be on this flight,” I said.
“How old are you?” one of them asked, grinning.
“Can’t you read?” I tried to sound snooty.
“Sorry. You’re too young. You’ll need parental permission in order to cross the border.” He was still grinning. I didn’t think it was the truth, but he said it. My knees caved.
“I. Am flying. To Mexico!” I said it just like that and bugged my eyes out. I was not about to lose the game now. I was also not about to “get parental permission.”
“Just kidding. Haha,” he said, and handed back my ticket. He put his hand on my back a little too long and ushered me down the corridor.
Sherry was in an aisle seat and was panning the plane. She looked worried. “Assholes. They’re all assholes,” she said, when I told her why it took me so long. She sat back in her seat, and said again, “Assholes,” making sure everyone heard this time. The only seat left was in the smoking section. When we landed, I walked down the ramp with a full-on migraine and puked into a trashcan.
Our hotel was like nothing I’d ever seen. The room the three of us shared had beds like doll beds, hardly something a girl with a belly would want to sleep in. There were no windows, just white concrete cutouts. I didn’t want to think they looked like Swastikas, but they kind of did. There was no air conditioning, and dinner was in the next-door restaurant, which was outside under a shaded patio, and it was Mexican. Of course it was Mexican, but I had never had a taco; I’d never even heard of a taco. I’d also never eaten chilies. I took my first bite and jumped out of my seat, waving one hand, scraping my tongue with the nails of my other. It felt like my eyeballs could spew fire. A man at the table next to us motioned, showing me to squeeze lime on the back of my hand, then sprinkle salt on it and lick it. His face was animated, large and tanned, and he wore a cowboy hat, something else I’d never seen except on TV. The way he showed me what to do was friendly, and his trick worked. I liked Mexico already. I said, Gracias. This much I knew about this country.
“Good thing about being pregnant is you can’t get pregnant,” Sherry philosophized that night in our pajamas. She was talking about her boyfriend, how they were both aspiring actors, and how they planned to marry one day. It just wasn’t time for a baby yet, she said, which made me think about the thug whose baby was growing inside me.
“You’re so lucky,” Jackie said. Her thick hair bounced as she bounced on the bed. “I just never thought I would get pregnant. I mean, I’d only just met Tony when it happened, and he’s sure not someone I’d marry.” There was nothing I could add to the conversation. Sammy, too, wasn’t someone I aspired to marry, and true, sex was so much more fun when you didn’t have to worry about getting pregnant, but tonight all I thought about was tomorrow could not come soon enough. Both these women seemed so mature. They were at least twenty. I never did tell them how old I was. I just kept trying to look like I knew what I was doing.
The next morning I felt anxious. All three of us felt it. I could tell. Sherry rolled her purse strap incessantly between her fingers and Jackie sighed over and over. What I felt was the same dread I had had when I was home, when I had no solutions. All three of us looked at our watches, then looked up the street and down, looked at our watches again. No car yet, no car. No car. We were supposed to be picked up forty-five minutes ago. Sherry had set her hair on beer cans and her long red curls began to droop with sweat. Jackie had applied very red lipstick that had smeared. Me? I was nauseous.
The possibility that this was not going to happen ran through my mind and ran through my mind. I was out the two hundred dollars for my flight, plus twenty or so that Mark had lent me for food and the hotel room. I owed all this, regardless. And now there was the possibility that my condition was never going away. I’d have to go to a girls’ home like Rita did, a girl I knew from band. She played first chair flute—an important seat. She had all the solos and marched at the front for all the football games. When Mr. Samuels, the band director, found out she was pregnant, she was kicked out and never played her flute again. Then she was kicked out of school altogether. Me? I’d be grounded for the rest of my life. Or worse. I’d be given up to foster care, put in a mental institution. No telling what my father would do.
At 8:45 it was already hot. Jackie, Sherry and I were not speaking. Not for any reason other than that all three of us wondered if we had been taken. If this car never arrived, I thought, at least I was with friends. Somehow this made it plain we’d come up with a plan. Sherry, after all, had a boyfriend she could count on. Jackie went behind a bush and threw up.
Then we noticed some bustling at the corner not far from where we stood. A long black car, looking like a limousine, had pulled over and three men jumped out from three different doors. Each of them wore a sort of uniform, not exactly like the policia but kind of like that. There seemed to be some confusion; they were handing papers back and forth. Then one of them turned and walked up to us. I noticed no badge, no symbol of any kind that indicated who he was, but he spoke with authority: “Djakee?” he said. Yes! Jackie jumped. “Bueno. Sha-ree?” Yes! “Sí. Bueno . . .” Then came my name, which he butchered: “Krest . . . Christ . . . Chistina?” I wanted to tell him I’d change my name if it would make it easier. I wanted to kiss him. I said, Yes!
He escorted us to what was most definitely a limo, shiny and mysterious. Two back doors opened out from the center revealing worn bench seats that faced one another. The leather was a dingy orange with cracks like an old face where many, many butts had sat. Jackie and Sherry got in first; I was told to sit opposite. Then one of the men slid in beside me and pulled out something black from his pocket. Turns out it was three pieces of silk, which he proceeded to tie around our eyes. “For your protection,” he said with a deep accent.
It was a long drive, and I let the rattling of the tires turn my worries into something manageable. With the blindfold on it was no use trying to talk. I could say something, but what? There was no going back now, I’ll remember thinking years later, how I probably calmed myself in that limousine with this thought. Although I’m not sure I had the wherewithal to think even this. I was too afraid to believe it all could have been a very bad idea. The last mistake I’ll ever make. No, these were likely not the thoughts I had. My best recollection is feeling safe, as one could feel safe in such circumstances, knowing I had two companions for whom this experience was exactly the same.
It’s hard to describe how black black is when it’s bound tight around your eyes. Not a sliver of light crept through the fabric. This man knew how to tie blindfolds. I wondered if I would be myself again after this, the context of me, APES paper and all, Mark and my girlfriends, Mr. McBride and West St. Paul, my family. Audrey. My reason for being here in the first place fell to the back. That reason. I needed to still myself.
We were now on what felt like gravel, nothing but uniform rumbling for miles and miles. Sweat was building under my blindfold and trickled down the side of my nose. I was too scared to reach up to wipe it, worried I might look like I wanted to take it off, and if I did, if I saw where we were, what could these men, the heavy one sitting next to me, the two up front guiding this tour, do? They could kill me. What if a young girl’s body were dropped somewhere in the desolate sands of Mexico, who would know? Sherry and Jackie? And what would they have to say about it? We were into something illegal, and there was no getting around that.
Without being able to look at a watch, or out the window, I surmised we had been driving about three hours before we finally came to a stop. Heat blasted in through the opened doors. We were still blindfolded. A body scooted in beside me. From his cologne, I thought it was the same one who sat beside me on the ride. The fat one. In a hushed voice, he said he was now going to remove the silk. “Please be patient,” he said. Yes, it was his voice.
We were told to “go inside. There.” He pointed to a long one-story house. Tall cacti Sherry said were called “old man cactus” cast stripes across the stone walkway. Inside it was cool, and it took a while to get used to the dark. The room was a large foyer of sorts with benches running along the perimeter on which a good number of women were already sitting. I assumed they were all Americans, but how was I to know? I didn’t recognize anyone from the flight, but that could have been my nerves. Could be they had all been on it. No one was speaking. Jackie, Sherry and I gave each other a nod, then quickly looked away. This was a serious moment.
A heavy silence hung in the air. If someone wanted to tell a story of what abortion meant in 1969, this would be a place to start. Pan the camera, focus on the faces. Show their hands, how the right holds the left, perhaps sweaty. Whose story would you tell? These were not poor women. It was not cheap to fly to Mexico. The procedure was not inexpensive. These were women who dressed nicely this morning. I was in my sundress with embroidered puff sleeves. A little like a little girl, which was just how I felt. A girl, small, on her bench, hands folded, my mind working to eliminate thoughts about what the next few hours will bring. There will be a tomorrow and a tomorrow after that. I could think about that soon.
Otis Redding’s Dock of the Bay hummed from the rafters. I hadn’t noticed it; I hadn’t even noticed the silence until this song came on, those bittersweet words that will always remind me of our first “date,” the night in the stolen car. It made me think with sadness of Sammy’s laughter, how he called me a tough chick. Sammy’s kissing, his nimble fingers unzipping, touching, touching. I felt so distant from that now, his beautiful stupid world. His words, “How d’you know it’s mine.” A question I had no source from which to fabricate a lie. What if it had been someone else’s? How would I know to do that, have two boyfriends, when he was my first? How would I know to try someone new, so new to this experience of love?
“Watching the tide roll away…” I was doing just that; I could almost see those waves roll over the hand-painted tiles. I was here. Someplace in Mexico. In the overly large foyer of a hacienda, peopled with pregnant American women. My thoughts ran loud while the voice of a man who was dead by only a year, sang his sad song of passion. Died in a plane crash at age 26, his voice a part of all that helped to break through the veneer that existed in 1969, the division between white versus black. I dropped my head and focused on my lap, wanting to forget that night. It did make me sad. That I had punctured that veneer myself but it was gone now. I would not drive by Sammy’s house again. Freddie was not a friend to me anymore. It was just an experiment. That’s all, and I had failed, or I had not failed. It didn’t matter. I was simply not a part of it anymore.
The sound of footsteps came from a dark hallway, paired with a chattering voice, the texture of which was clearly foreign. Then a woman, no taller than the height of me sitting, emerged from the shadows and handed me a paper. “Señorita,” she said and then added in perfect English, “It is your turn.”
She ushered me to a room large enough for only two chairs and a small desk. Juana was her name. Fluorescent lights buzzed from the ceiling. Her questions were not about my health. They were about the money: How many weeks are you pregnant? Six. Are you sure? Yes. Do you have the money? Yes. The cash was in an envelope that by now had become dirty and crinkled, hidden for nearly a week beneath all the other things I carried in my purse, lipstick, my Sucrets box. I handed it to her.
“Okay. The doctor will come for you.” More waiting, but nothing mattered to me now, even my nausea didn’t matter, because even that will be over soon. I could even handle one more vomit session if it came up. The floor tiles looked like they were hand-painted, like what I’d seen in Italy one summer with my Tante Liesel. She had fled Germany after the war and landed in Italy where she now owned a pension. She told me it was an ancient art, that of painting tiles, and tile painters were rare anymore. It was a disappearing trade. This doctor must be well off I thought and started doing the math. Say, each of these women was the same amount of pregnant as me. There were thirty-six, I counted them. In my head, that times three hundred dollars was $10,800. A week! I will learn later that planeloads of women arrived every day. Suddenly those dollars were astronomical. The policias were paid off, I was sure, with la mordida, the “bite,” but even then, it left more money than the house my family lived in had cost, and all of it will be earned within a week. No wonder there were the hand-painted tiles, the high ceiling, the smooth floor, the polished antique benches.
A roundish man with curls that wrapped around his ears, appeared before me. He spoke in perfect English, “I am your doctor. Please come.” I wanted to fall into his arms. My savior, the man who was going to change everything. He did not say his name.
The doctor guided me into a spacious, shimmering room. Shimmering because sunlight streamed in through two gauzy curtains, slicing in half the bed he indicated was mine. It was a single-size, covered with a fluffy duvet and a pillow you could sink into. Everything was white, shimmering white, set off all the more by the golden floor tiles. I asked why there was a second bed in the room, but before I heard an answer, I was sinking. A woman had put a needle in my arm. I was sinking . . .
In my next conscious moment, I was in the arms of a man. I was haphazardly draped in a sheet of sorts, hanging low to the ground. It must have looked like the Pietà. Perhaps he was my doctor, but I could not tell. I only saw the ceiling light haloing his head as he walked. His voice said, “You may sleep now.” He was peering into my eyes, like I was his child. He put my body onto a bed in a room with other sleeping women, and I dreamt of snow. I would ski when I returned. I would be nicer to my mother. I would get a job and would pay Mr. McBride back and his bride could buy furniture. I would tell Sammy to go fuck himself. I would do all this.
I was empty again, like when I first met Sammy, but it was a different emptiness. Things had happened. I’d necked in the backseat of a stolen car. No, it was sluttier than that. I’d fucked in the backseat of a stolen car. Necking, I’d have been aware of where we were, conscious of being busted or at the very least knowing “where this could lead.” No, I scrambled over the high vinyl, thinking only, hoping only, that he saw my thighs, bare, my yellow butterfly panties that matched my bra.
I knew what it felt like to be penetrated when it hurt so much I wanted only to do it again and again. I’d been drawn in by Sammy, but I knew so little about him. I only vaguely had a glimpse into his culture. It was a glimpse that teased me but didn’t settle. It never showed me who his mother was or what the neighborhood looked like where he grew up. Or where he grew up. I missed all that. I never asked. He never asked about me either. It was better that way. How would I have explained German? The food, my sad frightened mother, my father who could make the walls rattle with his rage? Or that I had two younger sisters who would go to St. Olaf, when college was likely out of the question for him? Yes, I could say I knew nothing about him.
I will walk taller now, my head lifted. I will have a horizon to look at, my own. The longing for more sex, and more and more of it, never went away. In fact it haunted me, bothered me, made me wriggle in my chair in APES. There were times I was so bothered I’d excuse myself from class and go into the girls’ room to masturbate. Sometimes all I did was touch myself, just one finger, and an orgasm was set loose. But Sammy was no longer the object of my desires. His memory passed through me like a wind. I owned my body now and that thought drove me. It will be a long time, a year to be exact, before I will have that experience again, the excruciating bliss of a man inside me. I will be smarter. I will know all about diaphragms and spermicidal creams. I will take the pill, but only for a week. I took it and didn’t want sex anymore. What was the use in that? So I stopped. But one thing was sure: I was a girl with experience now, one who knew about flying.