If Amal wanted to smoke weed in her Lincoln Continental, I was there with her. If she wanted to go out to a bar and dance until three in the morning, I’d go, even if I had to get up for an 8 a.m. class. If she wanted to drive out into the desert with the stereo playing full blast and lip sync to “Born to Be Wild,” I’d sing along with her, ecstatic that she chose me to be her friend. She could come to my room day or night, and I’d drop whatever I was doing. We’d lie on my bed and I’d listen to her tales, problems, and dreams, and wish I could touch her.
Alone in my dorm room, I’d put Barbra Streisand on the record player— “How Does the Wine Taste?” Just beyond her fingertips, just out of reach, she saw so much, she could not reach, she mustn’t touch. What might the fruit be like? Would it be lovely? A little frightening? I wondered too…
On my nineteenth birthday in March 1969, I blew up my life. Victor had decided we would go to a swanky restaurant to celebrate. I wore a flattering dress for the occasion and heels. Victor showed amorous behavior throughout dinner, asking me about my classes and my thoughts on various issues, and telling me how smart I was. He ordered everything expensive, plying me with wine I was not used to drinking, and putting his hand on my leg under the table.
Afterward, as soon as we stepped through the door of his apartment, he jumped on me. By then I was drunk and didn’t resist. With Victor in a lather, we barely made it to the bedroom before he entered me—with no protection.
It took several weeks for me to come to the terrifying realization I was pregnant. When I missed my very regular period and counted backward to my birthday, I doubled over and sobbed. Only one time without protection, and I’m pregnant?
The only person I could tell was Amal. Lying on my bed in the dorm, she hugged me to her breast and stroked my hair while I cried.
Her holding me like that made me want to stay there forever, but I was still pregnant.
“Don’t worry, we’ll figure this out,” she said, giving me a squeeze.
It was final exam week. I managed to get through the week and maintain a straight-A average.
When I told Victor I was pregnant—sitting in his car in the parking lot of the dorm, tears dripping into my lap—he didn’t appear as shocked and panicked as I was; in fact, he didn’t ap- pear upset at all. The next day he made an appointment with a gynecologist friend to confirm the diagnosis.
I could not keep my pregnancy a secret for long. The semester ended, and I went home for the summer. At the kitchen table, I sat wringing my napkin in my hands, and waited until after my father and sister had left the room. Mom got up to clear the dishes.
I took deep, steadying breaths, but tears had already started. With no way to soft-pedal it, I blurted out, “Mom, I’m pregnant.”
She whirled around, nearly dropping the plates. “Oh Patricia, how could you be so dumb!”
I sat mutely, looking at my lap, twisting the napkin, letting her see my tears. I have ruined my life.
Two days later, Mom came with me to the gynecologist. In the waiting room, Victor turned to Mom and said, “Sometimes I think I should just cut it off.”
Mom laughed, but I didn’t, consumed as I was with fear. And when the doctor confirmed my pregnancy, I thought I should cut it off for him. Especially because he’d arranged for this doctor of his choice to tell me Victor’s sperm count was too low to have fathered a child. He insisted the baby wasn’t his.
My pregnancy was a complete disaster and wake-up call. Not only was I pregnant, but I was lesbian—and in love with Amal.
Amal invited me to her adoptive parents’ home in El Paso for a few weeks. Her room was spacious, with dark mahogany furnishings and a large Persian rug, but had almost no personal items, no photos or posters of rock stars; it was barren, like her relationship with her parents. She hardly spoke to them, and we stayed in her room.
We sat side by side on the uncomfortable antique couch. She took a drag on her joint, blew the smoke to the side, and regarded me. “Maybe you should just have this baby. It’ll likely be smart, and I can help you raise it.” She paused, took another drag, and exhaled slowly. “Or do you want to marry Victor?”
“Of course not!” I said, a bit more sharply than I’d intended.
I didn’t love him. I never wanted to see him again. He would make a terrible partner and father. He was a self-centered philanderer. I didn’t know or care what he wanted. Is she actually offering to co-parent a child with me? A buzz of excitement penetrated my gloom.
Soon, however, reality replaced excitement. Even with Amal helping me raise it, a child required more than I could give. I’d have to drop out of university. I would never become a zoologist and travel the world studying animals. My belly would bloat up like Ernesto’s mother’s; I would have stretch marks. I might die in childbirth. Amal depended on her wealthy parents for sup- port. I had no money, and my parents were barely getting by.
A heaviness came over me as I sank further into a sea of despair. “I don’t think I can go through with it.”
“Then we must find a doctor who isn’t a butcher,” she said, taking another drag on her cigarette.
I thought of all the stories I’d heard about botched back-alley abortions—women bleeding to death or dying of raging infections—and a hard knot formed in my stomach.
“You’ll need to do it soon.” She looked worried. “I don’t know anyone.”
Time pressed forward, and I still didn’t feel pregnant, even though I was at almost ten weeks. As lovely as it had been to have Amal’s undivided attention, the destruction of my future loomed before me. I left her and returned to Phoenix alone.
I couldn’t go to a regular doctor or family planning clinic; it was 1969, and abortion was illegal. Though I thought my life was at risk, others might not think so. How could I find someone who wouldn’t leave me bleeding in the street? I tracked down an acquaintance to ask if she knew of any reputable doctors who would perform an illegal abortion. She didn’t, but she did put me in touch with a girlfriend who gave me the name of a medical doctor in Nogales, Mexico, and offered to contact him for me.
That evening, after my dad and sister left the table, Mom and I remained. There was a deafening silence, except for the clock ticking. It was bad enough she knew I was pregnant. I could not also tell her I was now certain I was a lesbian.
“Mom, I found a doctor who will perform the abortion, but he’s in Mexico. My friend contacted him, but I would have to go this weekend. It will cost four hundred dollars.” I sat hugging myself and rocking back and forth. It was an enormous sum I didn’t have. Victor, who was still claiming he wasn’t the father, hadn’t offered to pay.
Mom exhaled and reached for my hand across the table. “I’m so glad you found a doctor, honey. We’ll find the money somewhere, and I’ll come with you.”
Tears of relief welled up in my eyes. I wouldn’t have to face this dangerous ordeal alone.
When Mom and I arrived that Saturday night at the designated location in Nogales, Mexico, a driver picked us up and drove for half an hour through many twisting back streets and alleys with no street signs. The houses were wood and clay one-story buildings with flat roofs, often with derelict cars out front. Groups of young men spilled onto the road, sometimes shouting at us in Spanish, as we maneuvered our way past them.
We had no idea where we were in the city. The hand that held Mom’s was sweaty with our combined fear. My heart pounded, my mouth was dry, and I could only imagine the terror Mom felt as she sat by my side, gripping my hand. In her purse was the four hundred US dollars in small bills.
I hadn’t been religious for some time, but I prayed, God, please don’t let me die. Forgive me for aborting this fetus so I can live.
We arrived at a small adobe house. Before we knocked, the door opened and a Mexican woman in a white apron, her graying hair in a bun, ushered us down a hallway and into a small room. A naked light bulb hung from the ceiling. Taking up most of the space was a table covered in clean sheets. She told Mom to wait outside.
Shaking, I undressed and sat on the edge of the table, rubbing my arms and looking around. Is this sterile? Will I get an infection?
The woman came back and told me, in part Spanish, part English, to lie down and put my feet in the makeshift wooden stirrups as she placed another sheet over me and patted my shoulder. When she left, I lay with my heart pounding, looking at the ceiling and wondering if it would be my last sight before I died.
I jumped when a doctor entered the room, his face covered with a surgical mask. Without speaking, and before I could ask questions or change my mind, he placed a black rubber mask over my nose and mouth, and I lost consciousness.
When I awoke, Mom was holding my hand, looking down at me, her expression soft and loving.
I am alive! And no longer pregnant!
In my woozy post-anesthetic state, I murmured to Mom, “He’s such a good man,” referring to the doctor whose face I’d not seen before losing consciousness. I never saw him after the procedure. I’d wanted to ask him questions. How big was the fetus? What sex was it? No one would tell me, and I decided it was best not to know.
As soon as I could stand, the woman in the apron, now blood-stained, ushered us into the night and the waiting taxi.
In the wee hours of the morning, Mom and I crossed the US border into Nogales, Arizona. I was hungry, crampy, and happy to be alive. We stopped at the International House of Pancakes for an early breakfast. Gratitude filled me for the network of women who had helped me find the Mexican doctor, and to Mom, who’d stood by me through it all. It never occurred to me I might someday regret having an abortion, or that I might become a woman emotionally and financially equipped to raise a child.
As we drove back to Phoenix, the sun rose over the Sonoran Desert, glinting off the shoulders of saguaros, their arms raised, some of them twisted. Staring out the car window, I contemplated my future. Pretending to be straight was not working for me. Still imagining I was the only lesbian in Arizona, I resolved to go to San Francisco. To find out how the wine tastes.
From Making the Rounds: Defying Norms in Love and Medicine by Patricia Grayhall. Used with permission of She Writes Press. Copyright © 2022 by Patricia Grayhall.