From the Archive: My Abortions

*The photo above was taken by me @ The Women’s March in D.C. in 2017. This essay was originally written in 2011, and has been updated to include the following, post-Dobbs, introduction. And, to reframe – I’ll write more about this at another time – men are 100% responsible for all unwanted pregnancies; Kareen Abdul-Jabbar and his memoir’s claim that he slept with 20,000 women during his NBA career comes to mind. Insert eye-roll here_______. 

I had two abortions at Planned Parenthood in New York City in my mid-twenties. After the first, I still thought I could be a virgin when I got married, which is the kind of cognitive dissonance and compartmentalization women, primarily Evangelical and conservative Catholic women, practice when they get abortions while maintaining their ‘pro-life’ stance as in ‘I need this procedure, other women don’t, and/or aren’t deserving of the same medical care, and respect for their autonomy’. I was raised Catholic by a mother who stressed that my value as a woman was in maintaining virginity until marriage, but there was a problem with that, and with me. I had been sexually abused as a toddler, and was raped at eight by a cousin. How could I be a virgin, and ‘unspoiled’, given those facts? I would, as I did after abortion number one, simply pretend it away, push it down, live in shame and denial, while considering suicide daily, as I had since grade school. I was also sexually assaulted by two trusted high school teachers, men who to this day have the respect of many in my community, men who – when they assaulted me – were married with children, one of whom went to my mother’s – and my childhood – church. It’s hardly surprising that I flailed and failed in my twenties, failed at saying ‘no’, or ‘do you have a condom’, at taking birth control pills (why would I, after all, I wasn’t actually having sex; in my mixed-up mind, that was that other girl, the ruined one) and most of all I failed taking care of myself in any way shape or form. My periods were also very irregular. In many, most ways I tried to ignore my body, and all of its functions; I’m not sure I believed it belonged to me, not really. It belonged to the Church, it belonged to my family, to my mother, my culture, and all those men who’d taken, or tried to take, a bite of me. Morning sickness both times I was pregnant was twenty-four- hour sickness, and when I left Planned Parenthood after both my first and second abortion, I literally skipped down the street, thrilled the nausea was finally gone, and that I had my body back. My Body. Finally, finally after that second procedure I realized that if I didn’t take care of me, of my body, of my Self, no one else would. It still took years – decades – for real healing to take place, but when any one – any institution or government, Judge or priest, person or pundit – tries to tell me or any other woman or girl what we can or can’t do with our bodies, I feel anger in my bone marrow, in my blood, in all the healed and healing places that belonged and belong only to me, and no one else. Abortion is health care, and the Dobbs decision, however they parse it, relegates women and girls in this country to second class citizen status. And, if you don’t agree, you’re a misogynist: fuck you. Remember, 1 out of 4 women in the United States has had an abortion, a statistic I’ll bet is an underrepresentation, and if you think you don’t know one, well you’re wrong, some woman in your life is not telling you her full story – but regardless, now you do know one of those 1 in 4: me

Yesterday yet another man, a father of four, weighed in on the ‘Abortion Issue’, this time in the conservative op-ed column for the Oneonta Star, a local paper hereabouts in upstate New York. I am completely disinterested in what men have to say on this issue, particularly conservative Republican men who still, in my view, see women as second-class citizens, broody hens or mares, heifers, what you will as long as it’s barefoot or hooved and pregnant, yet it did stir me up, as stupidity on this matter always does. He said, in essence, that ‘abortion is one of our most important issues’; I completely disagree. Abortion has been settled law for thirty plus years and the conservative elements in this country need to get over it. We all, conservative and liberals alike, need to look at what is actually important, issues like generational poverty, gun violence, systemic racism, police reform, immigration, climate change, the income gap between rich and poor, health care, the deficit, and out of control spending by the Pentagon among others.
But before I move on let me address the abortion issue from a woman’s perspective, a woman moreover who has had two abortions and knows a lot – a lot – of other women who had them as well, women who are all too often silent when abortion is spoken of, a bad habit I want to encourage my sisters in this to break. First of all, I don’t think my experience is unique or special, but I do know that for me and for all of the women of whom I speak, abortion was a good thing, a necessary thing, not traumatic or violent in any way shape or form; in fact, in all the cases of which I know, abortion was a great blessing and one that must continue to be available to women and girls today. If I had my way, abortion would be – along with all forms of birth control – free and easily accessible, available and given on demand.
I was raised, as unfortunately too many young people still are, in a household where sex, sexuality and birth control, in any form, were not ever discussed. My mother was a Catholic (I am not) who believed and often pronounced that the only way to enter marriage was as a virgin, that sex before marriage was wrong, bad and sinful. This is one point of view, a dangerous and stupid one, and I hold it responsible in large part for my own idiocy when it came to dealing with my sexuality as a young woman. Prior to college, I had the usual biology and health classes in high school, lessons that reiterated what my mother said, that sex before marriage was bad, wrong and irresponsible. Again, this lesson was – and is – stupid, stupid, stupid. The health teacher I had skimmed through the reproductive issues pages to get to what really mattered to her (she was and is a teetotaler), which were the evils of alcohol. Very stupid.
I went into my early twenties, right after college, as a semi-virgin; I’d had sex but still considered myself sort of, mostly, a virgin. I was, as they say, living in a complete state of denial; I so wanted to live up to my mother’s example, my mother’s ideal, my culture’s ideal. I also had never, at the age of twenty-two, visited a gynecologist or spoken in depth with anyone about sex, birth control or abortion. I was smart, right, so no problem, right? I’d gone to college, graduating with honors; I’d figure it out, right? Figuring it out meant doing nothing, as I felt completely dis-empowered and in conflict when it came to dealing with my body and my sexuality. There is an inherent conflict created when we tell our children what they must do when it is – let’s face it – impossible to do, especially when we also don’t give them the information and means, as I was not given, to behave and act in a responsible manner. To refuse to accept and acknowledge that there is more than one way to be, as in having sex before marriage, as in being sexually active including all that that choice entails, is a huge disservice to our kids.
And so I got pregnant, puking my guts out for weeks on end at all hours of the day and night. I was so in denial I thought I had a bug, a very bad bug that I couldn’t shake. And I could live in denial because I believed that only bad, unlucky, low-class or stupid, trashy girls got knocked up; I wasn’t any of those! I remember calling my parents about this endless ‘bug’ I’d caught and hearing a note in my father’s voice that nudged me toward the truth. He knew, he knew, my smart darling father knew what I’d really caught, which was a serious case of pregnancy. Darling man that he was, he also never said a word when my bug, just as suddenly as it came upon me, went away. Imagine – men especially, imagine – if you can (and you can’t) – puking your guts out for six or eight or ten weeks as I did. Imagine feeling nauseous twenty-four/seven. It’s horrible. Brushing your teeth twenty times a day, gurgling mouth-wash to get the stink of vomit out of your mouth? Fun, fun, fun – not. 

Imagine if you can the fear I felt when I finally figured out that I was pregnant, knowing my work as a waitress, work I did while taking classes and auditioning for shows and commercials, added up to less than a quarter of the kind of income raising a child requires, if that. I had no real relationship with the ‘sperm donor’, a guy I’d met while walking my dog and screwed in the snow under a giant maple on Valentine’s Day in Central Park, a guy who, as it turned out, was married with several children, something he had lied about when we met. And I knew that in my life as it was then, there was no way, no way, that I was ready to have a baby. I had no health insurance, no primary care doc, and how was I going to carry a baby, a stroller too, up the five flights of my walk-up? How was I onto to be able to afford diapers and, everything else, when I was living on 10 bucks a week for groceries for myself? Ready – prepared – willing – happy, all of these were the opposite of what I then was, which was shit-scared, unprepared, and unwilling.
But, but – abortion is wrong. I promised myself I’d never do it. Oops. I confided in no one. I was completely alone with this, completely isolated, and in having an abortion I did the right thing. And I’m really proud of myself for that, for making the right choice for me, for taking care of myself although there was room, still, for a lot of improvement in that area. All children should be wanted, must, ideally, be wanted. I exercised – thank you Roe v. Wade, thank you, so, so much – my choice. After the abortion, nausea free for the first time in over eight long, looooong weeks, I literally skipped, danced, down Second Avenue outside Planned Parenthood. I had my body back, and I was glad.

I know there are those who say abortion is ‘unnatural’. I say that is bullshit. Nature is humanity using our natural human brains to find solutions to our natural problems and yes, an unwanted pregnancy is a problem. Texas and Louisiana are two famously “family values” anti-choice states of our union who also happen to share the distinction of having the highest rates of mothers and/or fathers who kill their living children. And just because I can I must mention here that Texas also wins in the thrice married category (as in they have the highest percentage of persons who have been married three times) as well as leading in the number of executions vis-à-vis the death penalty. Pro-life indeed. And what is strictly natural about penile implants for ED, or breast implants, gastric by-pass or face lifts? But you can’t get people riled up about those elective procedures, now can you? But women’s sexuality, women making informed choices about when they become mothers, a minimum eighteen-year commitment – sacre bleu! And let’s not even get started on how freaked out too many idiots get about giving our children the information they need and more than that deserve about sex, sexuality and birth control. Stupid, stupid, stupid.

Speaking of stupid: there I was one year almost to the day after my first abortion when it happened again. I was puking my guts out 24/7, only this time I knew what was going on almost immediately – within 48 hours – after once again having unprotected sex. How could this happen!? Oh right, I had unprotected sex. What the what? I had been counseled about going on the pill by the very nice people at Planned Parenthood yet stupidly insisted that I would not ‘fall’ again. I would meet Prince Charming or at least I knew, I hoped, that I would meet a man who respected me enough to work with me as my partner on this, who would have a stake in being ‘safe’, in protecting both of us, even in this, circa 1985, vaguely innocent, nascent AIDS era.
As I write this, my former naiveté both pains and amuses me. Men, in my experience, don’t feel particularly responsible for birth control; after all, they don’t get pregnant, they don’t go through morning sickness and they can’t at bottom relate to women’s sexual and reproductive experience in any way, shape or form. Similarly, I can’t relate to the pain of, for example, erectile dysfunction, although I empathize: gosh, that’s gotta suck, not my problem though, and there’s a shitload of meds the expense for which, unlike abortions, almost every single insurance company in these great United States will cover in full. So, sure, I feel for you but I can’t really, truly, feel your pain. How could I? I don’t have a penis and by the way, Mr. Freud, I don’t and never did want one either – although I am almost 100% sure that men, the vast majority, want breasts. This inability to fully know what it means to be a man because I am not one is yet another reason why I wish men, all men, would shut the fuck up about abortion. You cannot relate, you cannot know, boys, so shut up unless you will, without reservation, support abortion, sex education and rational thought on the subject of human sexuality as in a one-hundred-eighty-degree turn from the policies of conservative America.

And so yes, it happened again. I became pregnant for a second time. I was young, arrogant, stupid, naïve and I continued to be in denial about who I was and what I hoped to be, which was still – even, unbelievably, post-abortion numero uno – a young woman who was a virgin when she married. This defies logic, intelligence and reason, but we are unreasonable, insane even, when we cannot be who we are without shame. Ah, now there’s a word: shame. It is shaming to not know how to be who we are, and to be completely ignorant about something as essential as our bodies, our sexuality, ourselves. It is shaming to have false, impossible ideals held up as the only way to be when our own nature calls us to another way. My darling dad was a horny devil, an appreciator of women for his entire life and I am like him, a horny devil who cannot not appreciate a sexy man; I just cannot do it and I love, love, love, love, love sex. That’s a naturally occurring part of who I am. Now my dad was, as per my mom’s pronouncements, also a virgin when they married. Uh, nope. I found this out right after my mother died when talking to him about one of his grandchildren, a wonderful young woman then ‘living in sin’ with her fiancé. Living in sin was my mother’s characterization had she still been alive to say it and say it jokingly but, in that way when our jokes reveal our innermost and truest thoughts and beliefs. So, there you have it, my dad had kept his silence, again, as prior to going overseas with the Army, he’d visited a few ‘ladies of the night’ in NYC and, as he so succinctly put it, ‘Thank God I did, otherwise no one would have known what to do on our wedding night!’
I loved my dad. I wish I had known this when I was twenty, it might have helped me feel less like crap about having sex before marriage. I wish all parents would see that being honest with their kids, educating them realistically about sex, about birth control and their bodies, is the only way to be. I had my second abortion and then avoided men and sex for about three very long, very frustrated as hell years. This was also not a solution for me. I learned how to take care of myself but will forever be grateful that a right, my right, to abortion saved me, saved me from being and becoming a mother at a time when I wasn’t able to yet take care of myself. If you can’t take care of something as basic as birth control, as I couldn’t, please, please, please think twenty times – think a hundred times – before having a child. And let’s empower our young women to be aware of all of their options and teach young men (and old) to realize that the way they treat their partners, girlfriends and wives is a direct reflection of the way they feel about themselves, no matter the gender gap. Respect women and the choices they need to make, boys, because you don’t and can’t understand. And let’s keep abortion legal, safe and accessible to all women, regardless of income. Abortion is good and that’s the truth. 

©Marjorie Miller – 2011

East 1st St., N.Y.C.

*The NYC Subway, 1983, and when I moved there in the fall of 1981, coming up the stairs from the trains underground, I had no idea which way was north, or south, or east, or west, a perfect metaphor for where I was in life as a whole… 

The first place I lived in New York City was 31 East 1st St., apt. C or D., I think, not sure. It was a small studio on the back of the first floor, with room enough for a single bed, a chair, a nightstand, a small bookcase, and a lamp, and that’s about it. The galley kitchen fit one uncomfortably, and the bathroom felt like the biggest room in the place, if only because it was full-size. The building’s super and his wife lived in the basement; they were very young, not much older than I was at 22, and they were both addicted to heroin. She was pregnant, and I remember they were from Connecticut. Weird what sticks in the mind. 

I moved in on Halloween and whoever thought that was a good idea, I don’t know, because it wasn’t. There were gun shots and screaming outside all night, and I was as alone as I had ever been, at the start of a long journey on All Soul’s Eve, or whatever, a journey of twenty-one years, one month and 24 days, as I moved out of the city on Christmas Eve. My dad took the day off to bring me into the city, dropping me at the front door of my new home, where he told me not to go out, ever, after 5p.m. I did that for a week, but then realized if I followed his instructions, when and how would I ever have dinner out, see a movie, or a show? I hated to ignore his advice, but he had treated the entire endeavor like a trip into the unexplored jungles of the Amazon. Plus, I was brave, wasn’t I? And resolute. Resolute in my choice, no matter what, like a lot of young, dumb things.     

East 1st St. just off Second Avenue. The landlords were in their thirties, and new to the business; it was their first building. I paid something just under $300 per month in rent, and after about three weeks in the city, I got a job working the counter at a place called Big Nick’s, a Greek diner, on 25th and 2nd. Big Nick’s Two, that is; Big Nick’s the original was on Broadway in the 70s, the west 70s, wherever that was. Eventually I’d be ‘promoted’ to wait tables at Number Two, leaving after about a year, maybe more, when I decided I’d had enough, enough harassment from busboys and cooks, customers, and cops on the beat stopping by for coffee and chats I didn’t know how to avoid, trapped behind the counter. There had to be something better? 

I had also been cast in an off-off Broadway play, Claire Booth Luce’s The Women, in the role of Mary Haines, an upper east side socialite and wife, or do I mean wife and socialite? I was twenty-three by then. The girl who played my daughter in the show, ‘Little Mary’, was seventeen, a harbinger of things to come, including my leaving the business because I was sick of playing women who had nothing in common with me, especially in student and indy films, male fantasies almost all. Spare me. 

My landlords, the newbies, didn’t have established credit, kept letting their bills lapse, including for heating oil, changing fuel delivery companies trying to keep the place juiced and warm. They failed more often than not. That winter was brutal, 1981 into 1982. The pipes burst in the studio above mine, destroying my kitchen ceiling, and I spent the nights, and my days off, under multiple blankets, with the stove on occasionally, when I dared, for a little heat. I must’ve bought a space heater, but if I did, it wasn’t much good. Not being able to take a hot shower, smelling like grease and coffee grounds, was almost as bad as freezing my ass off. I didn’t know anyone else in the city to ask the favor of a quick, borrowed shower. 

Upstairs there was a neighborhood guy, a real New Yorker, who was in his thirties or forties, but I’d discovered he couldn’t read. I offered to teach him, because how could anyone not read? Reading was my savior, my life, and buying whatever books I wanted after seventeen straight years of schooling was pure joy, and one of a very few indulgences I allowed myself. But, he took it as a come on, which it definitely was not. Finally, I had to tell him it was no good, he’d have to learn somewhere else, and that I was sorry. He was angry and, along with the freezing cold and unrepaired ceiling in my kitchen, his open hostility became another reason I started looking for a new place to live.

A gay man I quite liked lived next door. He was black and I think he might’ve been a drag show performer. Once, one of his boyfriends beat him horribly, and robbed him, even letting an accomplice in the back window to assist in the theft. I only found out about this months later, when he showed up after being away for an age in hospital, mending. It was not a great neighborhood then, although the grittiness of it appealed to me, and the history. I found out one night that the reason why the big trucks idled on Houston and 2nd was that it was a hot spot for street walkers. A cabbie pointed this out to me and we watched, the meter off, as a young woman in heels and a mini-skirt climbed into one of the cabs of a Mack truck to do whatever it was she did. What an education. I’d lived there almost a year by then and hadn’t noticed a thing except for the constantly idling trucks, which bothered me because pollution, hello! He told me this because when I’d said the address I needed taking to, he’d actually thought I was heading down there, to East 1st Street and 2nd Avenue, to ply ‘my trade’. After taking a closer look, I think he determined that I looked too healthy for that or something, so he told me about what he’d thought, at first, about me, and then about the prostitutes and the truckers.     

One of my fellow waitresses at Big Nick’s 2 was also addicted to heroin. Lulu. She was incredibly kind to me, showing me around mid-town and the upper west side, helping me orient myself, but I couldn’t reconcile her obvious intelligence, humor, and energy with the fact of her addiction. She was also pregnant. It all scared and unnerved me. She scared me, finally, the intensity of her need for money to support her habit, and her boyfriend’s. He was an artist – they both had been, once. But it wasn’t any of my business. I think the manager was giving her extra money, more shifts, because he liked her, and felt sorry for the coming child. We once laughed together at holograms of ourselves in a window on the east side. 1982. She was fired, ultimately, for stealing, and showing up late, or not showing up at all. I wonder if she ever got clean, and if the baby was okay. 

I finally moved out, finding another cheap apartment in another lousy neighborhood, but this time a two bedroom, on the fifth floor of a 6th floor walk-up, for $400 a month. The landlord preferred me and my fake boyfriend (‘we’re engaged, and getting married this fall back upstate!’), an actual friend of my little sister, to a young female attorney with a real job, a New York native who was black. He chose us even though the pseudo-engagement was just the start of our falsehoods and exaggerations, but he didn’t check our references, or follow-up on the info on our application. I saw the attorney realize she wasn’t going to get the apartment the moment we stepped in the room, white privilege in action. Hopefully she did better elsewhere, as the building was perennially unsafe, heat in winter again spotty, and maintenance non-existent. The street-front door didn’t have a functioning lock for years, and crack addicts, among others, let themselves in to smoke under the stairwell. There was no super, so trash piled up until the smell was unbearable, especially in summer. Still, I lived there for nine years; the cheap rent was a trap, impossible to give up, until again, there had to be something better than this? 

That first year in NYC in the east village was during the days of letter-writing, handwritten letters. I saved all of mine from childhood forward – all of them – until the summer after I left my second New York home, that cheap two bedroom, because moving a heavy trunk of letters and old journals three times in one year convinced me lighten up. Maybe I would laugh now, re-reading them, the old letters and journals, but the hot summer I shredded them all, 1990, all I felt was relief in letting go of a past that was literally weighing me down. There had to be something better, right?   

The Pity Fuck

*Our heroine, all dolled up as cotton fucking candyotherwise known as Miss Clara Eynsford-Hill

Let me start by saying that if you are ever tempted to fuck someone, anyone, because you feel sorry for them, don’t. I’ve done it for you, okay, so just don’t do it. Just don’t. Learn from my mistakes, which are many and varied, and which I serve up to you as an example of what not to do. Remember, too, that men will – being weak, testerical, and entirely led by their penis brains – say anything, pretend anything, lie about anything and everything to get a chance to come inside a woman they desire. Okay. So. 

It was in the 80s, and I had done a show in regional theatre, Pygmalion, playing a secondary lead, and this guy, the father-in-law of the Eliza Doolittle actress, fell hard for Miss Thing over here. I was dressed as an ultra-femme cloud of cotton candy for the part I played, and he was a sugar seeking missile coming off a contentious divorce from a wife who’d left him for his best friend. Ouch. Still, not my problem, why is this old dude calling me? 

Well, he got my number from his Eliza-Doo of a daughter-in-law, thanks a lot, pal, a woman would go on to cheat on his son, leaving him ultimately to become TVs ‘Angel’, if you happened to have been touched by that, which I was not (I never saw it). Prior to her angel-hood, she was anything but, in my personal experience – but, but, but she was from Derry, in Northern Ireland, had witnessed The Troubles up close and personal as a child, was a Catholic or serious Christian however many divorces (two to date), and was a heat-seeking missile of another kind, pursuing money and fame, which she got. You go, girl. And, damn her eyes, she gave her short-lived father-in-law my number.

He resided in San Francisco, where he was an attorney. He had four or five sons, and they were all – except the eldest, a real tight-ass if ever I met one – really yummy, like yum yum yummy, and I was their age, not his. They interested me, the ones I met, and he did not, yet he kept showing up in New York, inviting me out to dinner, and, young fool that I was, ultimately I accepted. Eliza-Doo assured me he would be a perfect gentleman, wouldn’t lay a finger on me and, young fool that I was, I believed her. 

Just don’t do it. 

He didn’t lay a finger on me, or rather he tried and I did kiss him (young fool that I was I’d had a few too many drinkie-poos at our swanky East Side dinner) but it was gross, and I was able to extricate myself from his embrace, so it truly was a pity fuck and not forced in any way. Well, not forced or coerced other than his successful attempt to manipulate our heroine psychologically. Yup. All this, by the way, occurred in the young marrieds’ apartment on the West Side, where I thought they were going to be after dinner (protection) and where they most definitely were not (what the fuck, Eliza!). 

Initially, I rejected him as nicely as I could. I used to be a lot nicer in my twenties and thirties when rejecting men; I even used to fake orgasms occasionally, or refrain from saying ‘is it in’ when their dicks were so small you couldn’t see them close up, let alone from space. Last time a guy asked me out, a week ago, I said ‘fuck no’, and we both laughed. This is a guy, by the way, who I told several years ago I think of as a brother, and – to make sure he understood me – I don’t fuck my brother, so just stop. But, hope springs eternal, as I suppose it should.  

All the above to avoid coming to the scene of the crime – which was me rejecting this nice but not attractive, kind of gross, much older dude who was about the age I am now, a man whose sons I lusted after in my heart as well as between my thighs. So, then, what the heck happened? What happened next? How did the deed get done? 

He cried. He started crying, and got down on his knees, where he begged me to fuck him. He begged me, on his knees, in tears, mentioning the wife, the pain, his former best friend, the sorrow and humiliation, and please, please, please would I please just fuck him? 

Gentle reader, what the fuck was I supposed to do? 

Get the fuck out of there, of course!!! But what did I actually do? Well, I remember very clearly thinking, oh fuck it, the poor guy, look at him, and it’s not like I haven’t had sex before. I felt so bad for him. In other words, what happened is that I got sucked into being a fucking girl, putting his needs before my own, before considering why would I fuck anyone, anyone, I found unattractive, repulsive, even gross. I was doing what women and girls are still too often socially conditioned to do: take care of others before thinking about ourselves. There is a powerful moment in the film and book Room by Emma Donoghue when the young woman who has freed herself after being trapped by a sexual predator for years confronts her mother with the question, which I paraphrase, ‘why did you teach me to be nice, to be forever compliant, even with strangers, especially adults?’ Why indeed. 

When I pity fucked this man, I was being nice. And nice is how I came to have my second abortion, because within a week of pity fucking that old guy I was once more puking my guts out day and night and night and day. All I wanted to do was get it – get him – out of me, out of me, and never, never, never pity fuck anyone, ever, ever again. 

And I didn’t. 

All Hail Great Aunt Martha!!

This photo is of is my grandmother, Marjorie Davidson, on the left, and her sister Martha, the elder by two years, circa 1894 or ’95. I love this picture because I love – loved – my grandmother, and because of the look of fierceness on Great Aunt Martha’s face, at least as I see it. I like to imagine that, as the older sister, Martha would have defended her little sis with all her might, but it could be that the photographer was socially inept, didn’t know how to treat little girls, or maybe he kept insisting she sparkle or smile, in which case I know exactly how she felt: men have been telling me to smile for years, and I have perfected a truly frightening grimace in response. 

These sisters, Martha and Marjorie, were the best of friends their entire lives, although those lives took significantly different paths, and my grandmother outlived her beloved sister by over twenty years, living to be almost ninety-eight. My sense was that their parents were enlightened, good people, who loved all of their children, and were respected and loved in return. Martha and Marjorie were educated beyond what was much more conventional for the time; after graduating from high school in Monticello, N.Y, they attended Oneonta and Albany Normal Colleges, respectively, and they both went on to teach, Martha for many years in the Oneonta School District, in Otsego County, New York, and Marjorie on the eastern end of Long Island, in the Hampton Bay S. D. 

I don’t know how my great aunt met her future husband, Ward Woolheaver, but I know she waited many years to marry him because in true gothic novel fashion, he was married already, with a wife in a mental institution, a wife he would not divorce her in her diminished and vulnerable state. And so, having met and fallen in love they waited, until after many years the first Mrs. W passed away, and Ward was free to wed. By then Martha was in her fifties, and I believe Ward was at least a decade older. From all reports, my grandmother’s, my dad’s, and my mom’s, Ward and Martha had a great life together, buying a home in Franklin, New York, where they loved to socialize with friends and family. It wasn’t a long marriage, however, as both of the pair were very heavy smokers; I clearly remember Martha wreathed in a cloud of smoke, with a long, schmancy cigarette holder, upswept hair, and chunky bracelets. So stylish, I thought, even if I also thought I was going to die when she visited: along with my dad’s pipe, fresh air inside our house during those dinners was in very short supply. Her husband, Ward, died first, I’m not sure what year, but I know that Aunt Martha lived alone for at least a decade – moving to a ground floor apartment in Oneonta – before succumbing to lung cancer in 1968. 

I do know that my grandmother met my grandfather when he returned from World War I to finish his high school education. She was his Latin and physics teacher, and by the time he completed his schooling, he was almost twenty-three, and she was almost twenty-six, and they’d fallen in love. She urged him to go on to college, he was so bright, but his dream was to farm, so she left teaching to become a farmer’s wife. According to my dad’s first cousin (and mine once-removed, I think is how it works), my grandmother worked harder on the farm than three hired hands put together, and I believe it. Her husband, my grandfather, was an extremely difficult man she loved a lot, as did I, a man who was volatile and abusive, expecting absolute obedience from his wife and children. He was insecure and ego driven in a way she was not, picking fights whenever and wherever he could, at home, and in public. He didn’t know how to be loved; he feared it. His favorite brother, Fred, had died suddenly at eighteen, going septic from a scratch on his cheek, one minute perfectly vital and alive, then dead less than forty-eight hours later. I don’t think my grandfather, sixteen at the time, ever recovered from the loss. Like Marjorie and Martha, the brothers had been best friends, and I’ve often wondered if he felt that Fred, who he and everyone else had loved, haunted every room in the construct of his own much more difficult temperament. 

But I digress. 

My grandparents married in 1921, and bought the farm the same year, where they grew cauliflower and kept dairy cows until retiring in the mid-fifties. Their fourth child, my uncle Jay, was born in 1926; he joined an older brother, and two older sisters, Bill, Betty and Martha, at home in New Kingston, the latter named after my grandmother’s sister. Aunt Martha visited to meet baby Jay at the farm in 1926 or possibly even 1927. I’m not sure; the roads were less traveled, and much less travelable back in the day, thus what is a forty-minute ride to Oneonta now was at least ninety minutes back then, if the weather was clear. 

Great Aunt Martha wasn’t a huge fan of her brother-in-law, and from what I’ve heard, and the little I remember, the feeling was entirely mutual. Still, she very much loved her baby sister, prioritizing that relationship by keeping in touch through letters and calls, while making visits to the farm whenever she could, and could stomach putting up with her sister’s bully of a husband, always trying to pick a fight. Unlike her sister, Martha had not learned, nor would she ever learn, that when it came to her kid sister’s husband it might be better to keep her tongue behind her teeth. Still defending her sister, Martha picked fights right back at him, and for that, I am deeply grateful. You go girl.

As the story went, visiting the farm in ‘27, and after examining and exclaiming over baby Jay, Great Aunt Martha said to my grandfather, ‘Well, I hope that’s it, Bill.’

‘What do you mean Martha?’ 

‘I said, I hope that’s it. I hope you’re going to give Marge a rest.’ 

‘What does that mean, Martha? Give her a rest?’ 

And where was grandma at this stage? Tending to the baby? Hiding out in the kitchen or living room? From many other confrontations I witnessed between my grandfather and any one of his many sworn enemies (a long list that included my mother), I believe she would be sitting right there witnessing it all, giving nothing away, a female embodiment of the Rock of Gibraltar, albeit a rock with a slight smile on its face. (You go girl.) 

‘I mean: I hope this is it. As in no more children.’

Nine months later, maybe ten, my father was born. 

All hail Great Aunt Martha! Without you, I would not be here, you darling, pugnacious little girl, you loving sister, you fight picker, you marvel of a woman. You, Martha the First, rejecter of sparkle. All hail!  

The First Time: The 1st Big Oh-oh-ooooh!!

*happy hump day!!

The first time I had an orgasm I was twenty-three, and while I may have had other orgasms previously, I suppose, I hadn’t really had all that much sex, let alone great sex, by that point in my life, so who knows? In other words, I wasn’t sure. This one, however, was so big, so much the mythic Holy Fuck, that I couldn’t not mistake it for anything other than what it was. Unfortunately, it came at the hands of a lying sack of shite, but I didn’t know that then, although it would be made clear not long after the Big Oh, when he finally, finally invited me back to his swanky, rent controlled apartment on 86th street between the park and Columbus Avenue, which apartment he shared with an ex-girlfriend, now just a non-sexual pal. You understand, right? Yes, sir, absolutely, sir (subtext: can you do that thing with your tongue again?!!)! The arrangement with his ex was made clear soon after he and I met and started frisking around one another. The apartment was a three bedroom, you see, and they paid very little in rent; both he and ex/pal were visual artists, and neither was willing to give the place up even though they were no longer a couple, and so it goes. In any age in any large, crowded city, and certainly in New York City, real estate can collide with love, thus this ‘situation’ was completely within the realm of credulity. My realm, for sure, as I was both young and dumb. And, he was very, very sexy. That orgasm, JHFC, life forms on Mars might’ve seen or felt its vibrations.

However, it turned out this story of his was absolutely, no question, a load of horseshit, total fucking fiction. Non-sexual roomies? Living together as exes and good friends? Sure, pal. We’d finished playing tennis on that fateful day (*not the day of the Big Oh), on the courts in Central Park, (*tennis is a great game for meeting and frisking if you’re into or looking for that), and Mr. Big Oh/Lying shack of shite said he wanted to show me his place. Okeedoke! Thought bubble: tennis then sex? What could be better? Not much. Yay.  

Great space, nice building, impressive – I’ll give you a tour. Sure! One of the bedrooms was his sculpture studio, the other was her painting – wait. The other was her painting studio?! But. Suddenly, I was walking in fog, brain fog, my stomach down around my feet, slightly nauseous. Stunned. I kept walking, to the third bedroom, which was huge and flooded with light, facing the street, and nicely furnished with a king-sized bed, the only bed I’d seen so far. Harumph. Full length mirror in the corner, check, and dresser, check – complete with a bit of feminine mess, as well as a framed photo of the schmuck standing next to me embracing a woman not me (obviously) on its surface. There he proposed – y’know, that we engage in more co-ed wrestling. I thought you were friends, that she was your ex, you said she was just a friend. He laughed, shrugging his shoulders. Well, then, fuck no, asshole. I actually did that, although I didn’t say asshole or fuck no, I mumbled and bumbled and got out of there PDQ. I was young and dumb, but I wasn’t a total dope, although he sure made me feel like one, in that moment, in their bedroom. Their bedroom. Ugh.   

Look, he was a sculptor who did odd jobs – one of which was maintenance of a cemetery in the Bronx, fixing gravestones and time worn statuary, and another of which was teaching tennis. I didn’t know this then, how could I, but common wisdom says that tennis teachers, especially at the casual play level, y’know, just for fun and exercise, are generally rabbits, as in they’ll fuck everything that moves, so yes, find your frisk there with another player/student, but don’t fuck the instructor unless it’s purely to burn more calories, no strings attached. 

We met playing tennis in Central Park; I was twenty-three, looking for friends, real friends, in NYC for the first time, having left the east village for greener pastures, or so I hoped. I was working at a bar a bunch of tennis types frequented, Hanratty’s on Amsterdam and 96th. I’d played tennis in high school, not too seriously, but was pretty good, so, sure, I’ll play! Hanratty’s, by the way, had great food, and was always busy, yet I was consistently the only waiter who made money there, which confused me. It took me several years to figure out that this was because everyone else who worked there was spending their tips on cocaine. Young, and dumb. And, for three years at that point, not drinking, or doing drugs. Nope. Sober as a judge, yet none the wiser for it. So, basically, I was missing a lot of signs, all over the place. (psssssst: if they don’t take you to their apartment, rather insisting on meeting elsewhere, they def be married or attached, GF!!)     

Mr. Big Oh/Lying Sack of Shit was good looking in an untypical way, in great shape, with lots of hair, and he was funny, smart, interesting, different. He pursued me in a way that was pointed but subtle, if that makes sense. He was also good friends with a couple I was trying to befriend, two classically trained, college educated pianists who had apartments in the neighborhood. She worked at Hanratty’s with me, and gave music lessons, while her boyfriend taught both tennis and piano. They were several years older than I was, and Matt, Mr. Big Oh, was in his thirties. Surely, if he was lying to me about his relationship, one or the other of my brand-new forever friends would say something? Surely, they would? Ah, no. Nope. That’s on you, new kid in town. And maybe they didn’t know? They knew. She did say something, when I questioned her, afterwards. FEH.

But, let’s get to the first time certified Big Oh, and put his lies aside for now (mostly). He pursued, we frisked and flirted, played tennis, and drank with his friends (he’d known the couple for at least five years to my three or four months) at the bar at Hanratty’s, him drinking booze and me drinking seltzer, or water. And, he lied, he lied like a dog, no one challenged him or warned me, and I didn’t, ever, question or challenge him because – naïve. And so, one hot afternoon in July, my birthday month (he was a Pisces, another water sign, compatible! and of course I remember that, along with his full name), we had sex in my apartment, dragging one another gleefully up five flights of stairs to my futon covered captain’s bed. 

What happened next? Oh, the usual. Shorts, tee shirts, undies flung hither and yon, saliva swapping, hands everywhere, breath all breathy, and the absolute pure joy and fun of skin on skin contact with another human being. My. Favorite. Sport. Sex. So great. And at one point, Mr. Big Oh was eating our heroine out, and here it is, the Big Oh, like a train boom appearing in a tunnel and I am right smack dab (legs spread!) in the middle of the tracks. Run. Me. Over. 

How did I know it was an actual, real orgasm? Well, lemme tell you – the blood rushed through my body so intensely, so bigly, so overwhelmingly, I was at first, whoa whoa whoa whoa whoa, shaking and quaking and then, well then I was alluvasudden unable to move. What the what is this?!! Paralyzed. I could not move. For several very long moments, I was immobile, and, because nothing is ever uncomplicated – I went right to the lane of, ‘Oh fuck, this is how I die, or I remain forever paralyzed, and my parents find me, naked, spread eagle on my bed in this shit hole apartment?!! The little – literal – death, or disability, from orgasm, from pleasure!?!! Waaaaaah!!’ He didn’t notice (he was busy), but, and, however, after a few very long, long beats, movement returned, as did my sense that that, why that sure was something special! Was it ever. 

Since then, I have to admit, I have never had such a booming orgasm, one that paralyzed me again, and that’s okay by me. I have had many other orgasms, big and small, and all points in-between. I’ve also slept with men who could not find my clitoris or make me cum for love or money or anything else. And that’s okay, too. Even mediocre or bad sex is sex, right? Maybe. Sometimes it’s just a kind of bandaid. One fellow I was involved with while my dad was dying was so frustrated by my lack of orgasm after the first night we spent together – when I’d had several – I knew I was withholding, but his style in bed sucked, and truth he was a bandaid, a tourniquet, merely, a night out, a sex break while I watched my dad fade away. Not my best moment, although I had had high hopes when we met and started seeing one another. Ultimately, though, I just didn’t like him, so his frustration was fine by me. He wasn’t a nice guy, too controlling, and much too angry, especially at his soon-to-be ex-wife, and the way he operated in the world was how he was in bed: a dull, one note, buzz saw of a battering ram. Foreplay, fun, connection – all of these – are essential, imo, to having great sex.  

Fifteen years after my revelatory afternoon in the three-bedroom apartment on 86th street, I ran into Mr. Matthew Big Oh in the post office on Columbus and 90th street, a long narrow space where it is impossible to avoid anyone, regardless of who they are, or were, to you. Oh. Matt. Although at first, I thought, wait, no, this cannot be him?! He was being led, almost as if on a leash, by a woman who was probably my age, possibly younger, and he looked old, and worn out. His expression was the most perfect representation of hang-dog (Miriam-Webster: sad, dejected, sheepish) I’ve ever seen – it was almost as if he couldn’t raise his head above the level of his girlfriend’s nose, and she was short, people. Oh Matt. Karma Baby. Not my problem, and thank goodness for that. I was just another score for him, I think, one of many; who knows how many tennis students and their friends, how many women, period, he picked up in Central Park during his prime years, long gone. Good for him. Whatever. I’m simply sorry I fell for his line, but sure, you do you, Matt. 

At the time I saw him again, I was working for a writer in my neighborhood, another one of those part-time jobs I took while trying to figure my shit out, contemplating leaving NYC to write my own stories, instead of helping a dilettante with hers. Running into him was a little like watching an old journal go up in smoke: satisfying, a cause for reflection, a letting go, grateful to put a pin in it, done, over. This is not mine, not me, not anymore; this represents another life, another world, another brick in the wall of life’s experiences. 

The Laundry Man

All this might be an illusion but all the same I cannot question the things I have experienced. Memories belong in this category.” ~ Shohei Ooka 

Living in New York City, or, I suppose, any large and densely packed metro area, laundry – as in access to washers and dryers – is a thing, a challenge, an inconvenience, a marker of how much cashola you have. Rich folks have w’s and d’s in their large, rich people flats; they send out, to specialist cleaners – his shirts, jackets, and pants, her blouses and dresses – among other items; their staff (housekeeper, cleaning women) will wash the rest, including the unmentionables. Being not rich-y-rich, not even close, I still find it quite thrilling that I can, even over two decades after leaving NYC, wash my own clothes and everything else that needs washing in my own home, whenever I want (whenever I want!!!) because I have my very own washer and dryer. In my house, at my permanent disposal. Oh joy! Oh rapture! Basic/major appliances on hand and always ready: what a gift, and I am grateful AF. 

Carrying even one bag of laundry several blocks is such a specific sweaty task, even in, maybe especially in winter (sweating while also freezing and slipping around, anyone?). When I lived in the East Village, the walk was about four blocks up 2nd Avenue to a reasonably clean spot, but the laundromat closest to me in my next neighborhood on the Upper West Side was another whole story. On Columbus Avenue between 103rd and 104th streets, it was – I kid you not – scary: dark, ancient, with worn and dirty walls scarred by graffiti half-heartedly wiped away, and yellowed by age inadequate florescent lighting over-head. I went there for a couple of years, the whole process took about 3.5 hours, and you dared not leave your wash unattended, so it was time to read and people watch, if you were brave enough to look at the other patrons, because looking at someone could be taken as an insult, an intrusion, a judgement in that place, that neighborhood, during those early years of the 1980s. 

The woman who ran the place, owned it too, I guess, would do your wash for a fee, but I found her so terrifying I rarely approached her for any cause. A chain smoker, she had a backroom she might’ve lived in, not sure, and she was big, foul mouthed, and very, very angry, it seemed to me, all the time. Just asking her for change to use her machines was a challenge, kind of like asking an alligator to share its dinner? Doesn’t she want me to spend my money here, so – making change would seem like part of the service? But no, for gawd knows what reason, it infuriated her. She was like the mom in fairy tales who is actually a monster with a lashing pointed tail hidden under the tent dress she wore, the kind who eats little kids, including her own. And if you’ve never had your wet wash dumped out of a dryer you’ve fed several dollars into, dumped right out onto the questionably clean floor, as I did after stepping away for five minutes, you haven’t lived. 

Not as close by was another much smaller, cleaner, less worn laundromat run by a man who was short and skinny, always on the move; he was always smiling, too. That seemed a bit suspect, but still, I stopped by one day – it was an extra whole and very long block away from my apartment, so it was unlikely I’d use it – yet it seemed he truly was genuinely nice, the atmosphere was one of cheery industry, women chatting with one another primarily in Spanish or what I assumed was Mandarin, and, in this place, everyone seemed to be taking care of one another, less piranha feeding frenzy-like, more controlled chaos only there was clearly order, and kindness, if you stuck around, which I did. Eventually, because I noticed he also did people’s laundry for them, I asked how much would it cost for him to do mine? For that bag? For this bag full. Five dollars. No way. Five dollars? Five dollars. Okay! I always gave him ten. 

He was really nice, and getting someone who was kind to do my laundry was really, really, really nice. Heading off to college at eighteen, I didn’t know how to do ‘the wash’, because my mother was a fucking freak who treated her washer and dryer like they were her most precious possessions, the family jewels of a weirdly specific sort. Hers. Twice in my life she physically attacked me for attempting to use her washer, and while she was happy to instruct my sisters in how to do wash, and did my brother’s laundry until the day his domestic cat of a wife took over, she absolutely refused to teach me. I don’t know all of the reasons why that was, but in general she liked to stymie me, however and whenever she could. No problem, how hard can it be? It’s wash…everyone does it (well, everyone except my brother). 

When I ran out of clean clothes my first semester at Syracuse U., I took that same future five dollars’ worth canvas bag, my bottles of detergent and bleach (that’s what you use, right?) to the laundry room on the first floor, where I was thrilled to be able to fit all the clothes in a single machine (because why not, right?). Hooray! I added detergent and bleach (that’s what you do, right?), and – turning my back on the machine to read a history assignment – discovered thirty minutes later that I had a washing machine full of Pesto Bismol pink clothing, except my jeans and corduroys, which were chock full of pink and white spots and streaks. What. The. Hell. I figured out that a red cotton skirt I owned, which was no longer entirely red, had ‘shared’ its color because…bleach, I guessed? Shared. Oops. Straight from the washer into the garbage can, except for the salvageable bits I could still possibly wear. Thank goodness most of my clothes came from the thrift shop, although I did mourn a few I had bought new with my own money. Better luck next time? There was another, older student in the laundry room that day, while I waited for her to leave the room (no way was I going to take the puke-pink wash out in front of her), and for my machine to finish its cycle, I watched her separate her whites from her colored clothing, and put bleach in with the whites, and the whites only. Oops.  

One day, less than a decade later, and after several years of using the laundromat with the always moving and smiling man, I came back from a midtown audition appointment, dressed in a billowing pale green skirt, white striped silk-ish blouse I still miss, and heels. It must’ve been for a soap, the audition, and as it was a hot summer day, I exited the 103rd street subway at the farthest north end to reduce my outside walk by a block. The steps at the 104th street exit are very steep, and I joined a wall-to-wall crowd slowly making its way upstairs like little sardines in a pack. As we began to gain sunlight, I was hit on the back of the head with rocks, twice, and found that I was bleeding; several of others in the group were hit also, and, looking up, I saw a group of young boys’ heads around the metal barrier above the stairs. Hurt and angry, when I got to the street level, I gave those little shits hell, and then proceeded to walk to the Post Office on 104th street to get some stamps. I was shaken, and still angry, and the heat that day was oppressive – but the bleeding was minimal and I would soon be home, after all. The boys, however, had decided to follow me, and as I made my way down the block a few catcalls followed me as well, nothing new in that, but what was new were pieces of street garbage zinging past my head, or not, hitting my back and legs. Ridiculous. Thankfully, respite was close, so, hastening my steps, it was done and over, and I was safely inside the P.O. While standing on line to get my stamps, a young girl approached me – warning me – that I shouldn’t go out there, because now there was a bunch of boys who were waiting for me, and I was going to get hurt, really hurt. I was stunned, disbelieving – what?! Is this my own special Lord of the Flies moment, or what? She had to be kidding?!                 

She was not. 

As I finished at the window, I noticed a gaggle of small boys had entered the Post Office; they were whispering together, and were clearly keeping me in their sights. Fun stuff. Why, of all days, today, when I was in heels, FFS? Heels, and a billowing skirt. Why of all days had I decided to be a snarky cow, correcting children not my own, with whom I didn’t have a relationship, most of whom were kids of color, when I looked like the epitome of an entitled white lady, which I was, and am, but argh. For whatever reason (denial?) I didn’t reach out to anyone else in the Post Office; it couldn’t be that bad, right? So out I went, walking as fast as possible down the street while again, cans and bottles, rocks and whatever came to hand, began raining down on me from behind, several landing, mostly on my legs, back, and shoulders. I started running as best I could in my cursed heels, making it to the laundromat about a city block away where I threw myself on the mercy of my – acquaintance, the guy who did my laundry, a man who was not much bigger than the kids who were harassing me, if that. 

Out he went without hesitation, returning a few minutes later – the boys having been scattered by – whatever he did; I was much too freaked out to watch, or witness. I was merely, hugely grateful. Was it five minutes, or ten, when he came back? I don’t know, but he told me it was okay, he’d dealt with it, and that I was free to take as much time as I needed before heading home. He knew these kinds of things, and how they can happen, but assured me they wouldn’t bother me again. He said he wasn’t afraid of bullies, and the only way to deal with them was to show no fear, ever. They were cowards, and easily – although I know he didn’t use this word – cowed. He then showed me what I had noticed before, but had never dared ask about: the tattoo on his arm, a series of numbers, telling me it was a souvenir of the concentration camp he’d lived in, and survived, as a child in Poland. I had seen it, of course, and thought that’s what it was, from the Holocaust, but who could I ask if I was too shy to ask him, which I was, same with my wondering where he was originally from, his accent having given his foreign birth away. He laughed, flexing his muscle on that same arm, laughing at – at himself? At life? At triumphing over the gang of kids? At surviving? He explained that this, this time in the camps in Poland, was why he was so short, he was starving there for years, before the liberation, but he had lived. And this was why he came to New York, to America, to be free, and safe, where he could work hard and make a life for himself after seeing the very worst of human behavior. He was forever grateful, and now, nothing scared him, certainly not a bunch of little kid bullies from around the block.

After that, we were friends, not sharing lunch and gossip friends, but friends, even though we never knew one another’s names. I stopped by to say hello whenever I was over that way, and bought him a gift for the holidays, grateful he was there, grateful, period. After that, he was my hero, for many reasons, and I loved him for his always smiling, always moving self. Those boys never glommed together again, that I knew, but I continued to look up every time I used that subway exit, just in case, and I stopped wearing heels to and from auditions, carrying them in my bag while sporting sneakers, ready, always, to run if I had to. 

My friend the laundry man died of a heart attack on the job, about eighteen months later. I don’t know how old he was, but he could not have been much more than fifty, and it was terrible, a tragedy. I found out when I brought a bag of laundry for washing; there were women weeping in the narrow space, hugging one another, mourning him in Spanish, and Mandarin, English, too – enough for me to find out what had happened. No one there that day knew of his family, or who to contact; his body had been taken away by ambulance that morning; no one was in charge, everyone was in charge. I felt ashamed I never asked his name, or if he had family living. It seemed too personal, possibly too painful. But, I should’ve asked. Not long after that, I moved to mid-town. He had lived nearly thirty years in the U.S., spending his days in a long, narrow room filled with women and children and the noise of the washers and dryers, and he was always smiling.