Why Can’t He Be You?

Eve Tushnet 

“Oh, Nina, you haven’t signed up yet—can you take one of the,” and Dorrie was turning the clipboard toward me with her usual unhappy smile, “morning slots?”

“Sure. Where is this place?” Cigarette. Cigarette. Cigarette!

“It’s a Planned Parenthood on 17th Street. There’ll be a carpool if you want.” Cigarette, dammit! I signed up for 10 A.M. and headed outside as fast as I could. Open pack, fish out lovely lovely cigarette, between the lips and hunt for the lighter and suck and oh, thank God!

Smoky dark gray chemical taste. Already the stress of the morning was falling back into the past. Oh, brilliant, beautiful. Oh frabjous day.

Then, of course, I realized that I’d really signed up for ten in the morning on a Saturday. Well that would be exactly no fun. I hoped they’d at least done their homework. At last year’s conference it turned out that the place we were supposed to go to do our thing wasn’t even doing abortions that day, so we were all thrown off our game; we could try to talk to the people who came in to work, but it wasn’t exactly the sidewalk counseling we’d prepared for. People needed to learn that God didn’t automatically make them competent—they had to actually do the work. But that was probably a rant for another day.

At least my panel was over. It had been me and three blonde evangelicals—or do I mean three evangelical blondes? (In fairness, one was a brunette. But she wore a lot of makeup to compensate.) They were all married, too, even the one who was six years younger than me. About five minutes into the q-and-a, little Marlboro Lights had started dancing across my brain waving pompoms. With their… well, with their hands. They weren’t maximally realistic cigarettes. I think they had little white gloves on, like that cigarette in “Doonesbury.” Anyway, the panel had been on shame—ours, and our clients’, and how shame supports the abortion culture, and all the people who tell you not to talk about it because it’s gross and bad, blah de blah—and I did my sunshine act and said that people in the Christian community were generally so happy to hear that you’d left it all behind that they didn’t try to make you feel awful for having done it in the first place. Which is sort of true and sort of depressing. Someone asked if I meant Catholic as well as Christian. God. I mean, if you think about it objectively, I wouldn’t like hanging out with ex-abortionists. But I don’t really have a choice. To coin a phrase.

I’d lobbied for a panel on maintaining relationships formed before conversion, but it was way too complicated, and I wasn’t surprised when it didn’t happen. I just wanted to—I mean, I sneered at the people who always wanted “affirmation,” or whatever, but I really would have liked to hear about other people who, you know, my mother is pro-choice. (Pro-abortion, I guess. Abortion-rights. You know.) And both of my sisters and all of my cousins. One of my aunts actually became an Episcopalian about it, that and women priests. And it’s like… my brother is pro-life. And my dad, I’m pretty sure. But when I started actually doing it, working at the clinic, it was this huge thing, and it really hasn’t ever been fixed. (It was especially unpleasant because our last name is really distinctive, Trappetto, and they’d already gotten people asking them if it’s really their daughter who was in the Staten Island Advance talking about how she… you know… did she really?) And everyone else thought I was this warrior for women, maybe a little uncomfortable and extreme, but that was just because I was the youngest and hadn’t learned yet how complicated the world could be.

And so I learned. And the women in my family are, honestly, completely unthrilled about it. Both of my sisters and all of my cousins. My mom just doesn’t talk about it at all, the same way my dad didn’t talk about it when I was working for Dr. Shah.

Anyway, that panel didn’t happen. My cigarette had burnt almost to my lips, so I lit a new one off the old. I checked my watch; I still had fifteen minutes until our complimentary lunch. Which I was pretty sure would be pinkish chicken and washed-up green beans and rice. Bleah. I suddenly realized I didn’t have to go: I could get a burrito instead. I’d done my panel and I didn’t have to be there at all!

Immediately I was off in search of cheap, fake, delectable Mexican food.

Akhil had been so snotty about fast food. You can afford to be, I’d said,you can cook. I kept bringing in stuff, Chicken McNuggets with honey, Roy Rogers burgers, Taco Bell, Caribou Coffee croissants in the morning, soft-serve from McDonalds, Burger King fries. And he kept sniffing the air when I came in and shooting these yearning little looks toward my greasy cheap food, and pretending he didn’t want it. I kept tempting him. And so Mr. Dean & DeLuca himself finally dipped a McNugget in a little plastic honey packet; and after that he always gave me money so I could bring a double order.

Akhil, licking plastic-packaged honey off the heel of his hand. Akhil, fastidiously darting fingers down to dip a fry in ketchup. Akhil, after a long day, getting greedy and eating a whole taco in three bites, then glaring at me because it had been so small.

Akhil was tall and dark and handsome, as they say, and ten years older than me. He had a lovely Roman nose and we shared a smoking habit. He had a mole on his wrist, just above the joint, with fine elegant black hairs curling up from it. He had large, slightly tilted eyes, and his hair grew so fast that he had five o’clock shadow by noon. He had this harried “genius at work” look that kept almost all the clinicians in awe.

He had been so very committed to the cause. He talked about the statistics, how few doctors were doing abortions, how the population was aging. He had been a founding member of Medical Students for Choice at his school.

He could be brusque with the women. He had a polished spiel, and often it would sound fake, the gloss rubbed off under the day’s stress. But he was brusque with us, too, so it was hard to notice. And at any rate, doctors—you can’t expect them to be more than human. Even though these days, everyone does.

Outside the Mexican takeout, I finished my cigarette and ground out the butt. I joined a long line and placed my order. In two minutes flat I had my burrito: the miracle of capitalism. It was a gorgeous sunny day, and I had to hunt around before I found a nice low brick wall where I could perch and eat. I ate slowly. There was a panel in the afternoon that I’d kind of wanted to go to—something about identifying which women were most likely coerced or pressured into aborting—but I didn’t do a lot of sidewalk counseling, so it wasn’t wildly necessary. I knew I should go, but I really preferred to sit outside in the sun eating my burrito with its perky guacamole and its wonderful warm rice and beans.

And besides, if after working at an actual abortion clinic for years you can’t tell who’s under pressure, one afternoon’s panel isn’t going to help much. Everyone had the same stories: the mother who practically shoved her kid onto the table, the fourteen-year-old girl who wanted to know if she was really killing her baby. I remember Akhil turned one girl away, because she said on her form that she didn’t want the abortion. I was so crushed out on him for that—little clinician with my little starry-eyed adoration. Look how much he cares for women’s autonomy! I wonder if he’d sleep with me?

Yeah, I can laugh about it now. I was very embarrassing.

There were bad times. We had some people kneeling and praying the rosary outside our clinic, and the receptionist quit. (Good Catholic girl. What she was doing as our receptionist in the first place I’ll never know. I don’t know what people tell themselves! I mean, at least I knew what I was doing was against the faith of my fathers.) Akhil could tell, from what I said in the staff meeting, that I was more bewildered and irritated with the receptionist than genuinely troubled by her decision. I assume that’s why he asked me out the next evening. We went to a dance club—I was swept away by the sheer romantic incongruity of Akhil Shah clubbing!—and he bought me drinks, and we danced in ways that I am pretty sure would have shocked St. Paul, and he made as if to take me home. Even now I have no idea if that was courtesy or calculation. I smiled up at him, maintained my feminine mystery, and hailed a cab.

Bad times…. I do remember one girl. Vaguely remember. She was sixteen, and she kept saying she was a Christian—or maybe she was saying she was a Baptist? But I think it was that she was a Christian. She had on a tight pink t-shirt with silver printing across the tits, saying, Princess. I always think of her when people bring up women being pressured into abortion, but I honestly can’t remember why, now. I can’t remember if it was her mother who was pushing her, or maybe her boyfriend, or if it was more her whole situation… I just can’t remember. What I mostly remember from that day is Akhil’s singing. He had a beautiful voice, deep and rich, and he often sang to himself when he was thoroughly engrossed in his work. It meant he was doing his best surgery, and we should back off and let the master perform: singing as his gloves turned slick and red. I watched—totally infatuated—and I still remember what he was singing that day, this old-timey torch song. Oh your tears will come someday, my love. Someday, but not today.

He had excellent taste in music. Educated taste. My musical education had stopped in eleventh grade, smoking up and kissing boys behind the dumpsters at Our Lady Star of the Sea. He made me start listening to Vera Lynn (who I only knew from that Pink Floyd line, “Does anybody here remember Vera Lynn?”), and Patsy Cline, and a lot of classical stuff that I had to admit I forgot in later years. When I was moving last year I found these CDs he’d lent me: his Mozart and Chopin, hidden underneath my toppling piles of Beastie Boys and Metallica.

I always tried to be very quiet when he was concentrating on something, in the hopes that he’d start humming, and the humming would turn into snatches of song. Someday, my love, someday, but not today.

I slept with Shah, but that didn’t last long. Actually, it was probably one of the things—are we allowed to talk this way? It seems so worldly—that pushed me out of the abortion business, back to the Church. It just got very uncomfortable in the clinic. It was no longer somewhere I looked forward to arriving each morning. It no longer felt like a heroic, “sleeves rolled up in the messiness of human life and yet somehow glamorous because it’s so necessary and unrecognized” kind of job. It felt more like a gossip mill and a mistake. I left and did other medical work for a year or so; it felt self-indulgent to do work where I didn’t ever see tiny severed hands, all those pieces. (You learn not to look, or you learn to talk yourself through: Surgery is messy. Bodies are messy. You’re a Hero to Women. I don’t know what this says about me, but I didn’t think about it too much.) I hated Akhil and I wanted desperately to get him back. I dated, and loathed everyone who took me out. I was pathetic and knew it.

I spent a cold Christmas at home. My father said he was going to Midnight Mass. My brother went; two of my sisters said they’d go tomorrow (which we all knew he wouldn’t like, since they were planning to take Communion and he thought they shouldn’t), and I said, not really knowing why, that I would go too. And he was so sweet. He looked over at me when the Communion procession began, like he was terrified that I would make a big production about going up there, and when I just stayed sitting in my pew his whole big face got sad and happy at once, a purely compassionate and sorry face. He and my brother took Communion, then knelt to pray; they both snuck glances at me as I sat with my legs open, leaning forward, my hands clasped and my elbows on my knees, trying to figure out if what I was doing counted as praying.

Afterward Dad made us go to Denny’s so we could have a Christmas feast. He kept urging me to eat more. I guess he couldn’t figure out what else to say. It took me another couple months to go to confession, but I’m pretty sure Christmas was the turning point. Or my dad at Denny’s was.

This didn’t really make a great “born again” story. Nobody wants to hear about how you maybe, kind of, started thinking about possibly getting right with God because your dad made you eat lots of sausages at a Denny’s.

I don’t know. My grandfather was an immigrant. And he always said that America was better, better than Sicily, you could really make a name for yourself here—but he didn’t like it. He didn’t like America; it got on his nerves.

He missed the Old Country, where he’d been stuck and futureless.

I balled up my paper bag and napkins and the tinfoil that had wrapped my burrito. I dumped it all in a black metal trashcan with spidery ironwork around the sides, and headed back to the hotel. I was in time for the panel on financial support for people coming out of the abortion industry. That was fine; I wanted to find out which groups had good reputations.

I couldn’t help singing to myself—self-dramatizing, I knew, but it made me feel a little less lonely. As I strode up through the hotel’s parking lot to the glass doors, and down the carpeted hallways to the conference room, I checked my cigarettes (still had enough for the rest of the day) and sang, very softly. “Oh your tears will come someday, my love… someday, but not today.”