ECUADOR! CHILE! PERU! by Max Ross
WE WORKED TOGETHER at a Russian-fusion restaurant– Jenna had been there six years, I’d been there four– and both of us wanted to quit. But the tips were good at The Estate, and Jenna liked the small interactions with people, asking how was their food, how was their day. At times our relationship was composed of so many minor exchanges, with nothing much larger infiltrating the conversation. By the time she got pregnant, we’d broken up and gotten back together three times spread over as many years.
Ours was not the type of sex that should have produced infants. Ours was exciting, often vertical or three-quarters vertical, kissless, red-faced, spontaneous, and inebriated. We humped like it was the only way to apologize to each other anymore, and we wanted always to prove how much we meant it.
Jenna had grown up in South Dakota before moving to Minneapolis for college, and there was something endearingly rural about her, the baby fat she still had on her cheeks and under her chin, the way she wore a red-checked apron when she cooked (and sometimes nothing else), the way she pronounced long Os with the hint of an L: Doln’t. That summer she’d decided it was time for us to go on vacation together, and had been researching airline prices and different types of sand. This would be her second abortion, and so I deferred everything to her: the decision, the arrangements. She seemed to know exactly what she was doing. To use the word eager would be unfair, but Jenna was certainly adamant about enacting the plans. She was the sort who, once she made a decision (which was actually a fairly rare occurrence; it could take her hours to determine whether she felt like Thai or Vietnamese for dinner) she applied all her energy and attention toward seeing it through.
All week before the appointment she felt a lot on her own breasts, which had grown slightly larger from pregnancy. And I felt a lot on her breasts, too. At first Jenna and I were cute about it, teasing each other because she was too fertile, I was too potent, but as the appointment approached I became somber. It seemed like this was the first time any of my actions had carried any sort of consequence, and I was cowed by the laws of cause-and-effect (sex-and-pregnancy: I’d never really believed it could happen) and I felt, actually, quite powerful.
The clinic was on a commercial block – between a second-hand bookstore and a Wells Fargo – and people used its parking lot when they ran errands at neighboring businesses. A woman carrying groceries back from a near-by Lund’s sighed with minor relief when she found her car hadn’t been towed.
The girl checking in ahead of us had no health insurance and her savings account was non-existent enough that her abortion was subsidized by Planned Parenthood of Minnesota and South Dakota and North Dakota and cost her only seventy-five dollars, and she pulled crumpled bills out from the front pockets of her jeans. I’d forgotten my wallet. Ours would cost four hundred dollars and Jenna counted the cash from her week’s tips, which she had in a check presenter in her purse.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“It’s fine,” she said.
“I’ll pay you back,” I said.
“Half,” she said.
The waiting room was cold, drafts from the air conditioner disturbing all the leaves on all the ferns. Rows of thin-cushioned chairs lined the walls, each seat sharing a narrow, wooden armrest with the one next to it. There were maybe twenty other people – mostly patients, but a handful of boyfriends – and everyone spoke in whispers or not at all. Jenna was trying to figure out where to sit that would intrude the least on the room’s mutually feigned privacy. I thought about how the word abortion had actually become more powerful and awful than the action it described, and how if it fell from reverence back into the normal American agenda of lexical misuse, maybe the procedure wouldn’t seem so taboo. The word nothing, it seemed to me, when paired with the intransitive verb to happen to, made a pretty decent substitution for the word abortion: nothing was going to happen to Jenna. (Again.)
Pamphlets with information about sexually transmitted diseases were spread on knee-high coffee tables. There were cups of pens. There were Kleenex. One of the couples was Latino, the boyfriend wearing an oversized black t-shirt with Jesus driving a red Mustang. There was a miniature tin bathtub filled with condoms in fluorescent, primary shades. One of the couples was Black, with matching flat-brimmed Yankees hats. There was a wicker basket with packets of Saltines. Nothing here had anything to do with anything else; we were unified only by the waiting room’s soft ammonia. A technician in a long white lab coat appeared and called a name and one of the women stood up. I would have preferred not to be here. As Good As It Gets, with Jack Nicholson and a dyed-brunette Helen Hunt, was playing on the televisions situated in the southwest and southeast corners of the room. Jenna had brought with her a travel guide with the name of a South American country and an exclamation point on its cover, and she flipped through it as I filled out her medical forms. Her legs were crossed and she shook the mid-air foot so that her sandal – a neon yellow flip-flop – hit softly again and again against her heel.
“Have you ever had gonorrhea?” I asked.
“Have you ever had ovarian cancer?”
“How many sexual partners have you had?”
Jenna bit her bottom lip and pretended to focus on a beach in Ecuador! but I could tell she was looking at something that wasn’t on any of the pages. She’d slept with more people than I had and this embarrassed her, because it embarrassed me. Usually we were able to avoid the topic, but occasionally her sexual history and also her history of infidelity crept into the fights where we tried to make each other feel as lousy as possible. Some of them, her ex-boyfriends, still sent her text messages. She’d gone back to one of them once when she and I briefly broke up, and once when we were still together.
“A thousand,” she said. “A thousand-and-one, maybe. What about you?”
“Irrelevant,” I said. “How many of them did you love, like really?”
“That’s not on the question form.”
“It is,” I said, shielding the clipboard from her.
“Three,” she said. “And then you.”
“I’ll mark you in the zero-to-five box,” I said. “Next question. Are you on any prescription medication or do you habitually ingest more than four ibuprofen or acetaminophen a day?”
“Do you want to have this abortion?”
“No, not really.”
“Are you going to anyway?”
“Why? It asks why, but then just has a yes box and a no box to check.”
“Check yes,” Jenna said.
“Are you sure?”
She flipped a page in her brochure and I saw a large, smiling tortoise floating splayed in lime green water.
“I’ve been thinking a lot about the word abortion,” I said.
“There’s a surprise.”
“Ha,” I said. “But really. I think the word’s almost too significant. And that doing this wouldn’t seem so taboo–”
“I don’t think this is taboo,” Jenna said. She looked up from the brochure.
“I wouldn’t be here if it were taboo. It’s just a thing that some people do. And other people are assholes about it,” she said.
And she put her hand in mine; they were about the same size, our hands. The polish on her nails was cracking and I felt the different textures of paint and nail with my fingertips.
A technician called Jenna’s name – Jenna – and Jenna followed her through a door that you needed a keycard to enter. For a little while I looked at pictures of beaches in the Galapagos. As I waited a couple more women entered the clinic. Maybe the really sad part was that choosing not to have a child seemed like an inherent admission that there was something wrong in our relationship – there was no more pretending Jenna and I would be together forever. Our abortion, even when qualified with excuses like “I just want to be alone with you for a little while longer,” ensured the temporary nature of us. I’d categorize this – the draining away of love – as a common sadness, unoriginal but pure and even satisfying, the Saltine cracker of sadnesses.
My urge not to be there grew so strong that I debated whether it was okay to leave and wait for Jenna in the bookstore. Then I wondered if it was okay to leave and wait for Jenna at home. Then I wondered if it was okay just to leave. In the waiting room the women came and went, called away by the technicians, and those patients whose names were not called grew more agitated whenever it was not their turn for nothing to happen to them.
After a half hour Jenna came back with a brown paper bag – the pill – and a box of grape juice.
“I’m seven weeks pregnant,” she said. “That’s what they told me.”
“Wow,” I said. “Okay,” I said. And then again, “Okay,” and I turned my index finger and thumb into a bracelet and held onto her wrist.
When we walked out of the clinic we had that strange revelation, as walking out of a matinee movie, that it was still bright outside, still summer. The air conditioning and fluorescent lighting had lulled us into comfort and made us believe for a while that there was no world outside the waiting room.
At home I asked, and Jenna explained: The pill would force her into a mini-labor; she would have contractions and then, in a way, give birth.
“I wonder if they’ll have pills to induce normal pregnancy ever,” she said. “I wonder if they’ll have pills that can impregnate you.”
“Pills to go to work for you.”
“Pills to carry home the groceries.”
Our apartment was a one-bedroom in Uptown with a defunct fireplace and a farmer’s sink. One of the window screens above our bed was broken, and all summer we’d had mosquitoes buzzing in and nipping at us while we slept. Travel guides and “Escapes” sections from old New York Times sat on the couch absorbing the weather, dispensing a smell of damp newsprint. Jenna had been here since she graduated from high school. In the last three years, I’d moved in and out a couple times. Now we turned off our cell phones and locked the doors. We closed the blinds against the daylight and turned on the lamps – Jenna wanted it bright, but not naturally so. We’d rented The Princess Bride and David Bowie’s Labyrinth– movies that we’d seen multiple, multiple times: we wanted to be entertained, but not to have to follow unfamiliar plots. Jenna picked up a brochure with a simple catechism for its title – Chile? Chile! – and as she turned through pages with bold-font explanations of Santiago’s historical sites, I moved our air conditioner and mattress from the bedroom to the living room, so we could watch the movies in bed. I’d stripped the sheets so they wouldn’t get dusty as I slid it along the floor.
We took off all our clothes except our underwear and looked at each other, and it was one of those moments you get sometimes in a lengthy relationship when you realize you haven’t really checked out your girlfriend for a long, long time, and realize that she’s still beautiful and yours, and it’s great, but mixed up with the sadness of why you haven’t looked at her.
Then she swallowed the pill with orange juice and took two codeines to counteract the oncoming pain. (“Pills to make you sleep.” “Pills to make you dream.” “Pills to make you dream about what you want to do when you’re awake.” “Good one.”)
I also swallowed two of her codeines, so that my sleepiness might match hers. The next twelve hours we drifted in and out of wakefulness. It was mostly uneventful – for me, at least; everything that happened happened inside Jenna. At times, asleep, she groaned (something I’d never heard from her before) and clenched her jaw so that her cheeks went taut. A mosquito landed on her shoulder, and I brushed it away. Somewhere between my lungs and rib cage there was a small, unrealistic piece of anatomy that wanted the abortion not to be successful (and successful seems just not to be the right word at all). I didn’t want to have a child, either, but hoped maybe there was some in-between procedure, one that involved large storage units and sub-thaw temperatures.
I changed the movies when they ended or, if we’d slept all the way through, re-started them. The mosquito – I assume it was the same one – came back and I slapped it against Jenna’s arm. She woke up as I kissed the emerging bump, then fell promptly back asleep. In the last two weeks a tenderness and degree of consideration had crept into our relationship, the pregnancy had overwhelmed all our other problems, and I wondered how long this sheen would last before we’d start arguing again about dishes and who got to use the car. (And, though I hate to admit it, this new compassion got me thinking about her last boyfriend, and her last abortion, and more than I hated the thought of them sleeping together, I hated the thought of them sharing this sad intimacy that Jenna and I were now in waist-deep.) For the next hour she scratched at her elbow with her eyes closed.
A week later we were both scheduled for the lunch shift. In the car she asked me to tell her about when we’d actually get to have kids.
“We’ll own a restaurant by then,” I said. “A Thai place, I’m not sure why. All our servers will resent us for being so attractive and loving, and maybe we’ll each have a couple brief affairs with staff.”
“I don’t like that,” Jenna said.
“I’m trying to be honest here, I think,” I said. “Eventually we’ll decide to have children, two of them, and after six months of not being able to, and wondering if we are in fact able to have children, you’ll get pregnant.” We drove around Lake Calhoun and the surface was so calm that windsurfers unable to catch a breeze kept falling clumsily into the water. “You’ll realize how much being late-term pregnant sucks, and feel lucky that you have twins inside you, so you can take care of the whole giving-birth thing with one shot. We’ll name them Rufus and James. When they turn four, we’ll teach them how to carry trays. On their eighth birthday, they’ll learn the POS system. At twelve they’ll bitch about customers who tip less than twenty percent, and I think we’ll probably cede them control of the restaurant by the time they’re sixteen. It’ll be nice.”
“I am never naming my son Rufus,” Jenna said. She put her hand on my hand on the stick shift.
“Right. Rufus is a girl, though, so that’s fine.”
At a stoplight Jenna kissed me on the cheek.
Her section at work had seven tables and she moved effortlessly among them. A tray was tucked under her arm the whole time, which made her posture unnaturally straight. I had a bunch of squatters in my section – they’d paid their bills a half hour ago and were drinking waters which I refused to refill anymore – and I had time just to watch as Jenna punched orders in on the computer system and sprayed out Diet Cokes from the gun. She ran food from the kitchen and asked her customers if they needed anything else.
“How are you doing?” I asked as she picked up drinks from the bar.
“Fine,” she said. “I want to quit, though. I always forget how much I hate this job.”
She put pints of beer on a tray and went to set them down at her four-top. An hour later she cleared the empty pint glasses away. After the guests left, she bussed the table and wiped it with a bleach-soaked rag and a new, identical foursome sat. Jenna got them pints of beer from the bar. I watched as she moved through her section, refilling and then filling glasses, setting down food and then taking orders, as more and more tables exited and then entered her section and paid their bills and ate. She worked backwards all the way back through to the beginning of the lunch shift, and then before that. Soon we were back in bed in the living room, rewinding movies, waking up, and then sleeping. I drove home from a dinner shift as the sun rose into the afternoon. Back to before the clinic and before the EPT and then in the restaurant again, setting down food and then taking orders. Jenna’s breasts deflated slightly and she moved smilingly through her section. And the repetition of watching her work became almost unbearable, the sameness of it. And as she went further and further back, to the beginning of our relationship, and then to before I’d ever met her, and she was still at The Estate waiting tables, I realized that amid all this bussing and running and clearing, really nothing had happened, nothing had ever happened, nothing at all.
Jenna’s apron was still tied around her waist when we got home, the strings in a bow just over the button of her jeans, and I untied it from her, and unbuttoned the button, and unzipped her zipper. Our mattress was still in the living room. She undressed me easily, and soon we were on the bed, though our legs were sticking off it at angles shockingly obtuse. Glossy magazines with pictures of sand crinkled and snapped underneath us.
Three months later we would break up again – we’d bought tickets to Peru! and then didn’t use them – presumably for the final time (it’s now been years, a few of them, and Jenna is engaged to someone I’ve never met). I would move to the east coast to pursue a master’s degree in sadness at a semi-prestigious university, and Jenna would keep our apartment, occasionally taking trips to sunnier places that reminded her how much she loved home.
But that afternoon we tried as hard as we could not to have a child, and I watched Jenna’s gaze as it floated, mosquito-like, out the window, and focused on something so distant it didn’t exist.
MAX ROSS' writing has appeared in The Boston Globe, The Star Tribune, Harvard Review, and elsewhere. He lives in New York and is at work on a novel