February 5, 2023

Bad Judge Men

By Elisabeth Amaral

          Hey Alito. You, too, Gorsuch and Kavanaugh. Listen up. I was young and pregnant, living on Carmine Street in Greenwich Village and scared. Scared like you and your buddies will never be.

The call I’d been waiting for came at noon.

“Midnight, the old Breyers plant in Newark. Be there. Look for a blonde in a T-Bird and bring the money.”

I needed six hundred dollars and needed it soon. I waited for someone to call and tell me that the money was on the way. Ellie did, mid-afternoon. Ellie from Menlo Park, California.

“Jessie sold his motorcycle,” she said. I’d only met Jessie a few times and here he was, selling his ride for me. There was no way I could express my gratitude, no way to turn back. He wired the money to Western Union on Seventh Avenue South and it was in my hands by suppertime. Jake and I had spaghetti. That’s what my body felt like, a mass of quivering slippery strands, barely held together.

Jake borrowed a friend’s car and about eleven we drove down Varick Street, through the Holland Tunnel, and took 1 and 9 to Newark. Drove down dark, deserted streets. We passed a solitary, shadowy figure weaving down a side street, a threatening posse of militant young men hanging out on a corner. Nearby, oversized rats gnawed at garbage from an overturned garbage can. We rolled up our windows and locked the doors.

We pulled into the parking lot of the Breyers plant, a shuttered, ominous hulk of a building and sat, waiting. Silence surrounded us. This was 1960’s pre- race riot, downtown Newark. The reality of where we were was as frightening as why we were there.

At midnight a woman with a platinum-blonde wig pulled up in a baby-blue T-Bird. She positioned the car so her open window was close to Jake’s. He rolled his window down.

“I’ll take the fetus out,” I heard her say. I started to shake. Jake handed her the money and I realized she must have said, “I’ll take the fee now.” Well, that I could deal with. That actually seemed reasonable, even funny. I began laughing, like a lunatic on the edge, that place where reason and terror meet. Jake leaned over and hugged me. It was time. I forced myself to get out of our car and into hers, realizing as I closed the door that I was closing the door on my fate. “Wait here,” the blonde told Jake.

I was as frightened for Jake’s life as I was for mine. This was a bad place to be and something bad could happen to him, or he might drive back to the city without waiting for me.

“Coupla hours,” the blonde yelled to him as we drove off. Jake’s arm stretched out of the window, waving. I wished I loved him more.

The woman drove for a while and finally parked behind an unfinished high-rise in Weehawken. With the exception of a towering yellow crane, ours was the only vehicle in the large lot. I was going to die soon and no one would find me. I would be butchered, my body buried in swampland in Secaucus or thrown off the Palisades.

The woman introduced herself as Joanie as we walked to the building. Her key let us into the unfinished lobby. She led me through empty halls, our shoes echoing on partially tiled floors.

“Gonna be a nice building when it’s finished,” she said in the elevator.

“I’m sure,” I answered, aware that I really might not survive. My life was in the hands of a woman in a bad wig and turquoise capri pants and a doctor I’d met once, in Union City while he ate a liverwurst sandwich, a blotch of mustard staining his tie.

The elevator ride was smooth. We walked down a long hallway of the ninth-floor corridor that was dimly lit with uncovered, dangling light bulbs. Joanie knocked, and a young man with acne scars opened the door. “I’ll see you later,” she said, and left. As I followed the man into the apartment I glanced into an open door. A young woman stood near a cot as she slipped a pale blue sweater over her strawberry-blonde hair. She smiled at me, a small upturning of colorless lips in a pale face, but all I cared about was that she was alive. That gave me hope.

There were six or seven other cots in that room, most of them occupied. Young women wearing patterned robes lay on those cots. The man changed a sanitary napkin on one of the women, then led me to a small, windowless, brightly lit room. I saw the table and stirrups, the counter with instruments and gauze, before I noticed the doctor and a large woman in white. Her hair was a mass of tight, angry red curls and her lipstick was uneven on a thin-lipped mouth.

“I remember you,” the doctor said. “Take off your clothes.”

I kept on my bra and white half-slip with lace on the bottom, which crawled up to my waist when I climbed onto the narrow table. I slid my rear to the end and put my feet into metal stirrups. The humiliation that washed over me diluted my fear. I had come this far; it would all be over soon. I closed my eyes and waited for the anesthetic. The doctor slapped a thin, useless mask over my nose and mouth and told me to take a few deep breaths. Nothing could have prepared me for the pain that began between my thighs, ripped my insides in two and traveled to my brain. My scream came from deep inside, followed by a slap from the woman. “Shut up, bitch!” she hissed.

“She’s much further along than I thought,” the doctor said. “Hold her down.”

I can do this, I thought, just seconds before the pain intensified and the strong, hostile arms of the woman pinned my shoulders down.

“Don’t let her move,” the doctor said. I realized that my life depended on not moving. I forced myself to stay immobile through pain that burned through me, pain that seared every nerve in my exposed body. I thought about all the terrible things that happen to people, the incredible torment and pain they suffer and survive. Mengele’s medical experiments on women, root canal without Novocain. Burn victims. The worst pains a body could suffer as I felt the worst pain my own body had ever experienced. I tried to remember whether I had shaved my legs for this beast of a doctor and the scary woman in white. I willed the pain to stop so that I could go to the room with the other young women and lay down and sleep in a sisterhood of slumber.

Then it was over. The doctor said it went well as he slapped a pad between my blood-covered thighs. I looked at his sweat-stained face and the scowl of the woman and wondered how many pregnant women she had slapped into stillness.

The man with acne scars carried me into the room with the cots. A cigarette dangled from his thin lips and he blew smoke in my face while he laid me gently down. He covered me with a clean white sheet and an army blanket. The woman on the cot to the left of me reached out and grabbed my hand. I held it for a moment before curling up and falling into relieved sleep.

A few hours later, Joanie helped me walk to the car. “You’ll be okay, honey,” she told me. She was much kinder now and I felt fond of her. I was sleepy during the ride back to Newark, relaxed and weak, but I wanted to talk, so relieved to be alive.

“I’m in a ladder tournament on Sunday,” I said. “Do you think I’ll be able to play?”

“Whaddya mean, ladda, ya gonna climb up and down?”

“It’s a tennis match,” I clarified. “It would really throw things off, upset a lot of people if I didn’t show up.”

“Yeah, I know what you mean, honey. You can’t disappoint friends is what I say. I play Canasta with the girls Wednesday nights. We depend on one another. Dolores brings beer, Elaine brings the smokes and I bring pizza.” I laid my head back on the leather headrest, so happy to be having this conversation, almost wishing Joanie and her friends would include me in their weekly card game. “And don’t worry about your boyfriend. Frankie’s got that parking lot covered.” Whatever she was saying was just fine with me. I loved her and Frankie and the doctor and they loved me. They took such good care of me. How carefully Joanie drove me back to the parking lot.

Jake was there, reading The Wanderer by Fournier, in French, by flashlight. Joanie and I hugged. The last thing she said to me was, “Honey, if you do that ladda thing, don’t wear white.

The next day was bad. A deep sadness had descended, or maybe it was my hormone level. I sat home with Jake and cried. We would have had a very cool kid together, but I was barely able to take care of myself, so who was I kidding? Later in the day I got a call from my sister. I told her I didn’t feel like talking. She sensed something was wrong because moments later my mother called.

“Annie, honey, are you okay?” I wasn’t prepared to talk to her.

“I had an abortion, Mom.” There was a long silence before my mother spoke. I sat, phone in hand, prepared for a lecture.

“Oh, sweetheart, thank goodness you’re fertile.”

My mother’s comment sounded as strange as her voice; both seemed to come from a distance. The odd remark startled me out of self- pity. There was another silence before she asked how I was feeling.

“I’m alive,” I said. “I didn’t think I would be, but I am.” I told her about last night, all of it.

“It shouldn’t still be that hard,” she said, her voice trembling. “It isn’t right.”

I was stunned at her admission. At her emotion. I understood. An image of my mother flashed before me, her as a terrified young woman, many years ago. I felt a rush of tenderness for her. For the woman who held my hand the night before and for the woman with strawberry-blonde hair. I understood the sadness of her smile. These women were part of me now and I felt safe in their embrace.