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The Way It Was

The Beatles ruled. The mini was in. I was seventeen, and pregnant. What happened next is what could happen again.

Except for a small sink, the office was just a regular room, a parlor, with green walls and venetian blinds and a worn rug on the floor. A tall, battered, glass-doored porcelain cabinet stood in a corner. Through the glass, I could see on the shelves a dusty disorderly jumble of stethoscopes, hypodermics, bottles, little rubber hammers, basins, forceps, clamps, speculums, wads of cotton. There were rust stains in the sink and a tired old examining table.

The doctor, a little nervous man with glasses and a bald head, came in. I explained my problem. I have to examine you, he said. And he said: Everything has to be clean, very clean. He went to the sink and washed and washed his hands.

He finished and stood there without saying anything. His eyes were sort of glittering behind his glasses, and he acted as if I was supposed to know what to do next. I glanced around for a gown, but he was looking impatient, so I just took off my underwear and climbed onto the table.

He didn't bother with a glove. He poked around a while, then told me that I'd waited too long, I was too far gone, it would be too risky for him, and that would be $25.

He didn't bother with a glove. He poked around a while, then told me that I'd waited too long, I was too far gone, it would be too risky for him, and that would be $25.

And I was back out on the suburban street, the door shut firmly behind me.

Kat told me to come to New York and bring $500. I slept on the couch in her apartment. Kat's roommate, Elaine, gave me the address of a doctor over in Jersey City. I took a train and walked 10 blocks to a street of old brownstones, some of them with their windows boarded up. There had been no calling ahead for an "appointment"; you were supposed to just show up.

This doctor had a waiting room, with dark walls and a very high ceiling, the front room of the brownstone. It was full of people, facing each other along opposite walls, sitting in old, cracked, brown leather parlor chairs with stand-up ashtrays here and there, like in a bus station. A set of tall sliding wooden doors stood closed between that room and the next. Everyone was smoking, including me. The air was blue.

Several Puerto Rican-looking women chattered away in Spanish and seemed perfectly cheerful. There were a few men, who looked as if they might be accompanying somebody, and some more women who sat silent and staring.

And there was a couple who stood out like a pair of borzoi among street mutts: a man and woman, tall, slim, expensively dressed WASPs, faces grim, looking like people who'd taken a seriously wrong turn off the highway. I remember feeling sorry for them.

The tall wooden doors separated. A potbellied man in shirtsleeves who resembled Harpo Marx minus the fun stood there. His eyes moved around the room. He looked at the Puerto Rican women, the tall WASP woman, then at me, then the WASP woman again, considered for a moment, turned back to me, and pointed.

You, he said.

I got up and went in. He slid the doors shut. We were alone.

The windows in here had been nailed over with plywood, and the floor was ancient linoleum. There was a smell of insecticide. Boxes and bundles of paper were piled high in the dim corners and on a rolltop desk, and along the walls were shelves crammed messily with stethoscopes, hypodermics, speculums. The examining table was the centerpiece of the room, antique and massive, from the last century, dark green leather, steel and ceramic, designed so that the patient did not lie flat but in a semi-reclining position. Instead of stirrups, there were obstetrical leg supports. A tall old-fashioned floor lamp with a rose silk shade and a fringe, the only light in the room, stood next to the table alongside a cylinder of gas. An unlit crystal chandelier dangled in the overhead shadows.

Be here at seven o'clock in the evening. Give me one hundred dollars now because this will be difficult. You can pay the rest when you come back. Bring cash. Five hundred more.

The doctor had a trace of some sort of European accent. German, I guessed. He was about a foot shorter than I was, and behaved with obsequious deference, as if I had dropped in for an afternoon sherry. He gestured toward the examining table with a courtly flourish. I sat between the leg supports while he stood close and asked questions: Last period, how many times had I had sex, was I married, how many men had I had sex with, did they have large or small penises, were they circumcised, what positions, did I like it?

He moved the floor lamp closer. I put my legs in the apparatus and looked up at the chandelier.

He didn't bother with a glove, either. He thrust several fingers in, hard, so I could feel the scrape of his nails.

Ouch! I said politely.

Ouch, he mocked. Never mind your ouch. He pushed his fingers in harder and pressed down on my belly with his other hand.

You are very far along, he said. It will be a very difficult procedure. Come back tomorrow. Be here at seven o'clock in the evening. Give me one hundred dollars now because this will be difficult. You can pay the rest when you come back. Bring cash. Five hundred more.

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