The Procedure

When blonde, angelic-looking Annie asked if she could stay with me while she recovered from her intended abortion, I concealed my shock and said, “Sure. You can sleep on the sofa.”

At nineteen, a decade before Roe v. Wade made abortion legal, I naively relied on inconsistent condom deployment and boys’ assurances that withdrawal was effective. This was the first time I had been confronted with the consequences of my bohemian carelessness.

Annie helped me make a bed on the rump-sprung sofa in my tiny apartment. “Thanks a bunch, you’re a lifesaver,” she said. I felt worldly and maternal.

I knew Annie only through my casual friendship with her boyfriend so, over soup and toast that night, she told me about herself. She had been mostly on her own since she was fifteen, a precocious girl whose financially strapped, many-childed family barely noticed her absence.

“Tony doesn’t know about this,” Annie confided, referring to her boyfriend. “He’d want to get married and go all suburban.”

“Are you sure? You’re only, what, seventeen?”

“Almost eighteen,” she corrected me.

Tony was a rising artist in his twenties and, while he may have married her, I doubted he would “go all suburban.”

“I had an abortion last year, but that woman retired or got arrested or something. The girl who gave me this new address obviously survived, so that’s a good sign,” Annie said with a laugh to bat away the risk.

Friday morning Annie shook her head at my offer of cereal, too busy recounting the cash she had raised among friends. She shoved the bills in her wallet, bobbed her head silently in a count to three and pushed back her chair.

“Gotta go, wish me luck,” she said breathlessly.

I thrust an extra house key into her hand. “Make sure there are no cops around there. I’ll be home a little after five.”

I came home from work to find a note on the sofa: Out celebrating, XX Annie.

Saturday morning was a perfect spring day. I dawdled around the kitchen in my bathrobe making coffee and toast and hoped my noise would wake my guest. I looked forward to her departure and having my place to myself for the rest of the weekend.

Annie shuffled into the kitchen and sat down carefully. She bent over with her arms crossed against her midsection and rocked back and forth.

“Uh oh, are you okay? You don’t look good,” I said.

“I think I’m sick. I’m bleeding a lot,” she moaned.

Her face was greenish in the morning light.

“Okay, we’re going to the hospital,” I said briskly and left the kitchen to get dressed.

Annie insisted on taking another day to recover. “The woman said I might bleed a lot, so this is probably normal. I just got scared for a sec’.”

I was out with friends most of the day, but Annie’s pale, pinched face hung in the air before me.

On Sunday morning Annie could barely stand upright from pain and was still bleeding. I called a taxi and helped her hobble down the stairs then went with her to the emergency room. She had told Tony about the abortion after the fact but forbade me to call and ask him to come with us, insisting his presence might cast suspicion on her symptoms.

I understood her concern only when I witnessed the agonizing charade we played at the hospital. From their questions, the hospital staff seemed fairly sure they were dealing with the aftermath of an abortion, yet everyone in the performance knew not to utter the word—knowledge of it mandated that the police be notified. Brave Annie, her eyes fogged with pain, gave elliptical answers to questions that everyone hoped would elicit the proper course of treatment without her condition being named.

“Are you sexually active?” a nurse inquired sweetly.

“Yes. I have a steady boyfriend.”

“Are you pregnant?” asked the resident on call.

“I hope not.”

“Might something have entered your vagina that could cause injury or bleeding?”

“I’m not sure, maybe. It just really, really hurts and I’m scared.”

“Have you been treated for symptoms like this before?”

“Not really,” Annie answered, deliberately vague.

After every answer, the staff looked at me for confirmation. I shrugged noncommittally.

“Does this hurt? This?” they said, causing Annie to cry out when her abdomen was barely touched.

They rolled Annie away leaving me behind in a fluorescent hallway surrounded by the noisy drama that unfolds without end in big city emergency rooms. After a time, they brought her back in a wheelchair, white and clammy and clutching a large bottle of pills.

Tony’s studio apartment smelled of turpentine and cat box, so I called in sick at my job to make sure Annie ate and took her pills. Two days later blithe Annie kissed me, put my key in my hand and left my apartment.

About the Author

Polly Richards Babcock

Polly Richards Babcock is working on a memoir, the process of which can lead down unexpected side trips, such as the one she pursues in this story, which was inspired by the current version of the ongoing assault against Roe v. Wade. She has had artistic lives as a ceramic sculptor and photographer before becoming swamped by the need to write. She lives in San Francisco with her Netherland dwarf rabbit, Oliver.