White knuckles knocked on the glass. Tanya flinched then looked up to find a thin woman with an angular face, watery blue eyes, and shiny coral lips. The lady motioned for Tanya to roll down the window. Tanya looked at her older sister, Nicole, who gestured to her to get out of the car. Cautiously, Tanya opened the door.
“Good morning,” the woman said kindly.
“Hey,” Tanya replied. Her eyes moved up and down the lady’s velour sweat suit. Tanya had a jumpsuit just like that at home, but the lady’s fabric looked more plush, less faded, a velvety midnight blue.
“Are you with the clinic?” Nicole spoke over the roof of their red Civic.
The lady smiled calmly at Nicole then lowered her voice and spoke only to Tanya, “Has anyone talked to you about your options?”
“Options?” Tanya repeated.
“You must feel different,” the lady replied.
Tanya gazed at the wide spreading roots of an old elm tree. She had felt something take space in her body almost immediately. She didn’t even have to wait for the Plus sign or the day after her missed period. She just knew. There was no doctor’s appointment or ultrasound taken. She had only told her boyfriend, then Nicole, who’d said she would take care of it.
“Do you know how far along you are?” the lady asked.
Tanya kept her eyes on the elm’s slippery bark. Thanks to the Internet, she knew everything. She knew it was the size of a kidney bean, and if she waited any longer—a blueberry—then, a kumquat. She had never tasted a kumquat, and now she never would, because it was a fruit that she wanted to forget. She nodded yes.
“What’s your name?” the lady asked softly.
Tanya knew not to say her name.
“I’m Laura. And I’m here to help you.”
Nicole shut the door and walked over. “You with the clinic?”
Laura held Tanya’s gaze. “Do you want to talk to someone before you go in there?”
“If not,” Nicole said, “I suggest you leave us alone.”
Tanya’s bare legs melted into the blacktop. Swarms of hidden insects hummed in the green foliage that covered them like a tent. The buzzing of the cicadas intensified to a high-pitch screech, then lulled to a hushed vibration. In the distance, she saw a family of geese pecking at the grass.
“Please get out of her way.” Nicole said to the lady.
“I’m not in her way,” Laura said, never taking her eyes off Tanya. “I’m here to support you.”
Nicole looked confused. “By doing what?”
“I’m giving her a voice,” Laura looked at Nicole for the first time.
Nicole stood taller than both of them with broad shoulders and a long neck. She wore a gray tank top and purple mesh shorts. Her carved legs made Laura think that she ran track. Laura envisioned hurdles, batons, the triple jump…anything she could to find a way to connect with her. In high school, Laura ran the 800 and 1,600 relays. She still ran about three miles a day. If only she could make them understand that nine months was such a short period of time and if Tanya wanted to play sports like her older sister, she could. Laura had two children and in her thirties she still ran a mile at the same pace she had when she was eighteen. The age she guessed Tanya was now.
“Have you talked to anyone about this?” Laura asked Tanya.
Tanya’s eyes moved from the roots of the tree to its patient trunk and fanning branches.
The only other person she’d indirectly discussed this with was her AP Physics teacher, Mr. Plett. She’d approached him because he was the only non-Baptist person that she knew and she respected the way he viewed the world. When Mr. Plett spoke in class his eyes looked past her and the other students into the cosmos as if he knew some truth that they didn’t. He went on about sound waves, static electricity and all the other types of energy. Real things that were all around us that we couldn’t see.
The day after she knew and Nicole had already made the appointment, she waited after the bell rang to speak with Mr. Plett. She listened to chairs slamming into desks and shoes pivoting on the floor, they were the same sounds she heard when she asked him for a letter of recommendation or when she showed him her acceptance letter from the University of Illinois.
“Whatcha dreaming up now?” Mr. Plett opened a container of Lemon Clorox wipes.
“Just thinking about what Einstein said about energy. That it couldn’t be destroyed.”
“Only changed from one form to another.” Mr. Plett finished her sentence.
“And you believe him?” Tanya felt hopeful.
“But what about things like…I don’t know…if something ceases to exist, can it come back again at a different time? Like, when you were ready?”
“Is there something specific that you need to talk about?”
“No. You just got me thinking, that’s all.”
She gave him a distant smile and turned on her shoe.
“Tanya! Walk around her,” Nicole said.
“I have an idea,” Laura spoke to them both. “Why don’t you come across the street with me to the Birth Choice Health Clinic and talk to a counselor, and if you still decide to come back over here, I will walk you in myself. The counselors have all the resources you need.”
“Resources?” Nicole raised her tone.
“There are tons of resources available to you if you walk across the street.”
Tanya looked over at the clumpy soil. Her body pulsed with the insects. She had just learned about natural resources. She pictured waterfalls, windmills, and creeks. She wondered what this woman could do for her?
“Who do you think you are?” Nicole shook her head at Laura. “Messing with people’s heads.”
“I help people get information and support,” Laura retorted. Her voice sounded a little robotic, like it came from a script in a three-ring binder. She reminded herself to stay calm. To make it personal. “I’m here for Tanya.”
Nicole tapped her foot on the pavement. Hearing this woman say her sister’s name made her feel ill. The woman used her name like a weapon and Nicole had handed it to her. This woman didn’t care about Tanya, she didn’t even know Tanya, the girl with the wizard brain. That’s what mom called her and it was true. Nicole could barely keep up in school, used her legs to get a volleyball scholarship to Rockford University. Tanya would be the second person in their entire family to ever go to college. The first on an academic scholarship. This woman didn’t know how hard she had to work to receive an education. The only thing this lady cared about was her own beliefs.
To protect Tanya from this, Nicole had driven here yesterday to make sure there weren’t any picketers or zealots jumping out of bushes screaming verses from Deuteronomy. The same praying people were there: two middle-aged women and one man standing out front the rust-colored building. Their eyes were closed. Their hands folded beneath girthy bellies, and their lips mumbled unsynchronized prayers; but they didn’t even look at her as she sailed past them to confirm Tanya’s appointment. The gold Lexus with the God’s Pro-Life bumper sticker had been nowhere to be found.
Now Nicole wanted to peel it off, and if her nails had been longer, she would have. Instead, Nicole walked around Laura’s Gold SUV and looked in the passenger window. There were two cow-print car seats the size of thrones, multiple pairs of designer sunglasses, and a mountain of headbands on the dashboard. Spools of ribbon, fabric Gerber daises and plastic jewels sparkled in the passenger seat. It looked like Christmas, but it was July.
“I want to go to college,” Tanya finally spoke to no one in particular. “You don’t understand.”
That was what Laura heard the most. Everyone thought that she couldn’t possibly understand. That termination was the only way. She wanted to tell Tanya about the Muslim family that she had helped. The family found out by ultrasound that their third child would be born with a cleft palate and a tumor on its brain. Using her resources, Laura told the couple how cleft palates were surgically fixed, and how most tumors dissolved in utero. Laura mentioned that her sister was a doctor and could help them find a specialist. She even offered to watch their two older children while they went to that specialist. In the end, she didn’t do any of those things, but it was the offering that made the couple stop and think. Laura knew once people walked across the street, it was highly unlikely that they would return to the clinic.
Laura saw the couple walk away holding hands, but she had wondered if they came back another day or if they drove to another town. She was only able to make it on Saturdays when her husband stayed with the girls. Maybe because that couple had two daughters around the same age as her own, she had thought of them often. She prayed daily that the tumor would dissolve, that their insurance would cover all of the surgeries, and that they made the right decision. She wanted to follow up immediately, but because she wasn’t a certified counselor yet, she didn’t have access to their files.
One day when no one was around, Laura took it upon herself to find the couple’s information. She left two messages until she finally got a hold of the mother.
“Hi. I’m Laura from the health clinic. Do you remember me?”
“Yes,” the woman paused. “I do.”
With some coercing from Laura, the woman explained that they had given birth to another baby girl and after the hardest year of their life, their daughter’s face had healed. When Laura asked about the tumor, the woman said that it was benign. Laura felt overjoyed for the mother. A true miracle! All of her prayers had been answered. The woman never thanked Laura. She actually hung up on her, but Laura knew what would have happened if Laura wasn’t sitting in the parking lot that Saturday morning.
“I’ve helped others,” Laura said to Tanya, “I can help you, too.”
Because of the conviction in her voice, Tanya almost believed her. In some ways, she was helping her now, slowing down the process, and loosening the knots in her stomach. She didn’t know exactly what this woman could do, but it felt like she could reverse time, stop the sperm from back-flipping into her ovaries and release the air out of her swelling breasts.
“So what do you say?” Laura looked at Tanya, “Can I walk you over?”
Nicole let out a sigh. “Don’t you think this is hard enough?”
Nicole wanted to grab Laura by her Juicy jumpsuit, lift her manicured toes off the asphalt, and spike her shiny face with her open palm. Instead, she took deep breaths through flared nostrils and crushed her with her eyes.
Tanya remained perfectly still. Tears dropped down her tight face. She didn’t know what to do. She just wanted to go back to her old self. Nothing felt right. She tried to breathe, but her lungs were the size and weight of a change purse. Laura’s watery eyes held her and, for a moment, she felt like this woman could save her. She had this strange feeling that Laura had shared her sorrow; a loss that she could not express or forget. Tanya wanted to rest her cheek on her velvety shoulder and cry for both of their unhealed wounds. As Laura studied the designs around Tanya’s pupils, she felt like she had been seen for the first time. No one else had looked at her with such warmth.
Everyone only saw the silver lining: Laura’s two blue-eyed, piano-playing, tap-dancing girls. They did not see the tiny feet. Smaller than a flightless bird’s claws. Perfectly formed. When Laura’s placenta detached from her uterus, causing her to hemorrhage, the doctors gave her an emergency C-section at only twenty weeks. She had actually heard someone say, “It was only twenty weeks.” Like it made a difference. Laura knew that she already had two healthy daughters. That she should be grateful. But now, she was a woman without a womb who had held her dead baby in her arms. The experience deformed her. It felt like it was as obvious as talking without teeth. But no one knew. They only saw the outside. Which was, impossibly, unchanged.
When what was supposed to be her middle child, who would now always be her youngest, asked, “What happened to the baby?” she answered, “It decided not to come after all.”
“Can we get a trampoline instead?”
For months Laura watched her girls do sit-and-stands, straddle kicks, and front somersaults, while she recalled those tiny feet. Instead of going to mass only on Sundays, she went everyday, then back to the couch. She bought a sewing machine, spools of ribbons: lime green and hot pink, light blue and brown, yellow and orange. Nantucket colors, she thought. She made a closet full of hair bows and sold them to the boutiques with names like Born Beautiful, Bugs and Kisses, and Chocolate Soup. Nothing helped. On a Tuesday, she saw the Volunteers Needed flier in the parish hall and finally, something did.
“Let’s go learn about your baby,” Laura said, and Tanya winced.
It was too early to say that word. If only she would have said kumquat.
“I want to go home,” Tanya turned to Nicole, who walked to the driver’s side of the Civic.
“I’ll pray for you, Tanya,” Laura said a little too loudly and Nicole paused.
“Tanya-Marie, get in the car.” And when she slammed the door, Nicole shouted, “Go to hell,” loud enough that the praying people opened their eyes, scary enough to frighten Laura back into her gold Lexus and lock the door.
Nicole peeled out of the parking lot with her hand on her sister’s leg. Tanya pressed her hand on top of Nicole’s while she looked at the smeared goose droppings that covered the path to the praying people and rust-colored building. Two weeks later, Tanya will go to another clinic downtown with screaming protesters, hurling rotten fruit at her bare legs. Only the lady with the watery blue eyes will haunt her.