Tuesday, January 20, 2015


There are things that I refuse to discuss, points that I won't argue.  I am not afraid of the discussion or fear losing the argument;  No, it is that I am right and too bothered by the physical impact of anger at other peoples' stupidity.  You know, high blood pressure, headaches, ice picks in the eyeballs, boiling water on the legs, twitchy fingers.

Shoot.  I have been double dare challenged to use the word "concupiscence" in a way that does not jar, that flows, that does not cause the eye to blink as if jabbed by a pointy index finger. It just doesn't fall into my text with the ease of a dead oak leaf, not if I am referencing -- primarily -- abortion.

My partner, Fred, has been warned not to broach the topic with me.  In exchange, I will occasionally throw him a bone and discuss why even such-and-such serial murderer, undeniably imbued with the spore of Ultimate Evil, does not "deserve" the death penalty.  I let Fred litter me with all his best shots... Anything, just to keep him from bringing up abortion. You should probably know that I served as an Amnesty International Death Penalty Regional Coordinator.  By "coordinator," of course, I mean "coordinator of abolitionist activity." I once had an oddly constrained conversation with a very intelligent Southern Belle who, I realized, halfway through, thought that I actually organized executions in my spare time.  She was so polite!

I suppose I could have worked "concupiscence" into that last paragraph easily enough -- but not, I think, well enough.  That an ultimately evil serial killer might list "concupiscence" among his attributes, well... yawn. Très passé, tellement démodé! Also, not bloody likely.  I was a French professor, if you haven't figured that out from my nonchalant, pointed frenchifying.

I had two abortions as a young woman.

Why this statement obliges me to give the rest of my conceptual obstetric history is a mystery. It's not like you are my gynecologist or that I still believe my gravida/para/abortus numbers define me.  The urge to balance my abortion stats with live births and miscarriages is evidence of my cultural gender role training. I would rather bite off my tongue right now than give in to that urge;  I would rather starve than to salivate at the sound of that bell.

I remember every detail of the first abortion.  Remembrances are as imbued with value judgments as any constructed story, just as they are less subject to critical interrogations, which is why memory is such a great vehicle for argument. "What, you dare dispute my recollections?"

Until today, though, I had forgotten the primum movens to the event of my first abortion:  the long distance telephone operator.   The mustard yellow rotary phone, one of those that hang on the kitchen wall, with long, curly cords so that you can pace the linoleum or the pine of the dining room, in which is reflected Nana's cut-glass vase, the mirrored facets colored by tulips cultivated in raised garden beds by my stepmom.  Maybe I am the only woman idiotic enough to ask for directory assistance to locate an abortion clinic. I surely was a limited edition in those days, when there was only one such clinic within a large swath of my region, and when everyone in that region knew its name.  Everyone but me, the pregnant girl.

I had within arm's reach an independently published student newspaper, and surely there was an ad for abortion services in it, with a phone number. Bolded.  In red italics.  Surely I could have ferreted out the name of the place, a name which bore no reference to its most famous function.   Still, I did what I'd been trained to do when I needed help: I dialed the Operator. They weren't particularly chatty, didn't exactly exude warmth, and usually opened with "What city?"   I didn't know what city, of course, though I had a general idea.  First, though, I had to rid myself of the compulsion to tell her where I was and what phone number I was calling from by telling her where I was and what phone number I was calling from. (To this day, I imagine her as Lily Tomlin, snorting and asking callers: "Is this the party to whom I am speaking?")

I requested the name, phone number, and address of the closest abortion clinic.  Who knows, maybe I asked for one that had Saturday hours and served post-procedure brunch.   A great line for this story would be "and she didn't miss a beat," but, of course, she did.  Several beats. There was, in fact, a moment of dead air that seemed a small eternity.  Long enough for me to trap my free hand in the curly phone cord, make a mental note to wash the filthy phone, long enough to free my fingers to hold the pencil so that I could write the name, address, and phone number of the abortion clinic in my otherwise empty brand new steno book. In spite of a student apartment full of notebooks, I had carefully selected a thin, urine yellow Field Notes Brand steno book.

The operator, my Lily Tomlin, came through with the precise information and I dutifully filled the first three lines of that first slightly green page.  After her carefully enunciated announcement, she said, "Would you like me to connect you, free of charge?"  Back in those days, they made that offer at the end of every Directory Assistance call, probably with some reference built in to AT&T or one of the Bells.

I sometimes wonder how long I'd have stayed in my warm cocoon fugue state had she not made that perfunctory query.  What if I had said "No, thank you, ma'am" instead of "Sure... I guess"?   It was long distance, turns out, so she probably then thanked me for "using AT&T," the only option in a day of only options.

The receptionist at the clinic was amateurish by comparison, or sadistic -- her questions pokes of hot, electrified wire.  I wanted to ask her not to talk so loud. Not to talk at all. She didn't thank me for anything, not even for calling, for choosing her clinic, for granting my patronage.  She questioned my assessment of the pregnancy (there might have been a sneer in her voice).  I said 9 weeks; she said, "We'll see."  I said I'd come alone; she said, "Then we won't perform the procedure."  She repeated the cost and the litany of Ways to Lose An Appointment.  There was no question of partial payments, down payments, or credit cards, and once you arrived, you could not leave. You'd better not have had breakfast, not even a cup of black but aromatic coffee.  Cold cash, and something about Rh factor that I did not understand. No reference to a PDF comparison chart of abortion techniques, no offer of RU486, no mention of nitrous oxide or pain. Something mumblemumble involving group counseling, a video, something about cramping, orange juice, and pads.

She never once used the word "abortion."

By the end of our conversation, after I had hung up the phone and pried the pencil from my hand until about an hour ago, today, the directory assistance telephone operator was absent from the recollected proceedings of My First Abortion.

 ***** *****

white tulips in cut glass vase by john williams

"Un vase pour mes tulipes.
Avec l'arrivée du Printemps, les premières tulipes sortent de terre.
Le problème avec les tulipes, c'est qu'une fois mise dans un vase classique,
elles tombent et le bouquet n'est plus très esthétique."

***** *****

In the interim, I've been a staunch supporter of reproductive choice for women.  I have endured many attacks on that position. Some assumed discomfiture at having my equally ardent stance as a death penalty abolitionist gleefully unveiled as if it were some counter-argument to reproductive rights.  What sometimes made me laugh was the certitude that I'd be surprised by the juxtaposition of my own beliefs. (Where is it written that I shall not be discordant?)

But as I said at the outset, I don't argue any longer.  I just don't engage. All women should have unfettered, uncomplicated, and affordable access to pregnancy planning services and to termination of pregnancy. The death penalty should be universally abolished, along with its godchildren, torture and illegal detention.

Most abortion discussions iterate nuance upon nuances. In the case of rape.  In the case of incest.  In the case of an 8 year old, of the suburban wife and mother of three, the guilty, the innocent, the retarded, the pro, the juvenile offender. In the case of a black man. In the case of the gay man, the lesbian. These iterations only promote logical fallacies and bring me back to high blood pressure, headaches, ice picks in the eyeballs, boiling water on the legs, and twitchy fingers.

What brought me to this topic, then, given my insistence against such arguments, iterations, and the inescapable onset of nystagmus and delirium tremens caused by their mere mention?

The iPhone 5, of course.  More specifically, it was a tweet about the Siri feature:  "#Siri permet d'acheter des armes mais pas de trouver une clinique pour avorter." Remember that I'm a French prof?  You can trust my translations, at least ones the length of a tweet.  This one reads, pretty much: "Siri tells you the closest place to buy a gun but can't locate an abortion clinic."

Apple's ads for Siri pitch its worth this way: "Siri on iPhone lets you use your voice to send messages, schedule meetings, place phone calls, and more. Ask Siri to do things just by talking the way you talk. Siri understands what you say, knows what you mean, and even talks back. Siri is so easy to use and does so much, you’ll keep finding more and more ways to use it."

Siri talks the way I talk, understands what I say, knows what I mean, and talks back.

A high-tech pregnant me in search of an abortion today would be more lost than that younger one armed with her steno book. The thoroughly modern me still has but one shot at escaping pregnancy's fugue-inducing wily ways, whether or not I've a back-talking phone. It's true. Remember, I can reference memories of other pregnancies to bolster my assertions of the first.  The window of time during which a pregnant me is capable of making any decision of import is as small and fluid as a pin hole in wet plaster. Once gone, I am but a murky, fluid-logged vessel, a moist, damp incubator.

So I can easily imagine Siri's opinionated, automated voice standing in for the authority of that blessed flesh-and-blood telephone operator of my youth.

Megan Carpentier ran a piece in The Raw Story titled "10 things the iPhone Siri will help you get instead of an abortion" when the Siri feature first debuted:

"Ask the Siri, the new iPhone 4 assistant, where to get an abortion, and, if you happen to be in Washington, D.C., she won’t direct you to the Planned Parenthood on 16th St, NW. Instead, she’ll suggest you pay a visit to the 1st Choice Women’s Health Center, an anti-abortion Crisis Pregnancy Center (CPC) in Landsdowne, Virginia, or Human Life Services, a CPC in York, Pennsylvania...Ask in New York City, and Siri will tell you 'I didn't find any abortion clinics.' "

Carpentier lists unsettling juxtapositions, like desperate pregnant women with no help in finding reproductive services versus Siri's able assistance locating Viagra and places to score pot.  Are you in the nation's capital, in dire need of a blow job?  Siri knows where to go!  While at the Charming Cherries Escort Service, you can also have that hamster removed from your rectum, in situ or on-site.  All you have to do is call.

My only regret today stems from failing to incorporate "concupiscence" into this bit of light writing. I suppose there's always tomorrow.

© 2015 L. Ryan

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