Nonfiction from NER 41.1 (2020)
I am an instrument in the shape of a woman trying to translate pulsations into images for the relief of the body and the reconstruction of the mind
I. APRIL FOOLS
History begins with someone else’s memory of you. It begins with accepting that memory as your own. I want to remember the sensation of curling into my grandfather’s woolly armpit as he reads to me months before he died. A stack of books in bed with us. But all I can remember is climbing up the furry stairs on all fours and looking over the top step into his bedroom to see if he’s awake. To see if he can read to me. What I remember is the anticipation of warmth, of the perfect fit between my two-year-old body and my grandfather’s armpit. My sensations end with carpet and hope. The only lie I repeatedly tell is when I claim my mother’s memory of these reading sessions as my own, a history in tenderness.
Somewhere in Brooklyn two stone lions still guard these front steps from broken legs. 1923: the house my grandmother was born in. 1983: the house holding the room her husband would die in. I call my mom and ask,
Mom, what neighborhood in Brooklyn are you and Grandma from, again?
I ask, Mom, when did atheism begin? In our family, I mean?
Well, your great grandfather was an “assimilated Jew” in Germany.
History never begins when you think it does. History doesn’t begin. I think she’ll say, After the Holocaust. It’s April Fools’ Day, my mom’s birthday. Before I ask her anything, I say, Mom, I love you and I’m sorry I can’t be there.
I have inherited her distinct nose. A nose I was told I would “grow into.” I think I have, although it’s less about growing and more about accepting. America is sick of the Holocaust. I’m glad my mom’s birthday is easy to remember. I am glad I inherited my dad’s teeth.
I think when my mom says, “assimilated Jew,” she means he looked Jewish but did not act Jewish. Academic lingo uses terms like “acculturation,” “interfaith marriage,” an active effort to hide “distinctiveness.” For my great grandfather this meant: studied to be an engineer, did not practice Judaism publicly, did not live in a strictly Jewish neighborhood, (maybe made fewer jokes, didn’t speak Yiddish), married a German Protestant. I’m not going to tell you what I mean by “looked.”
My mom does not like birthday pranks. My grandmother once gave her a cardboard cake covered in icing and my mom tried to cut the first slice in front of her friends and couldn’t. My grandmother did not teach my mom German or Yiddish. Although when I was a child she called me Mein liebes kleines Mäuseschwänzchen (my dear little mouse tail). Otherwise I forget she is fluent, and when she does occasionally talk to a fellow German, I am surprised by the country mapping out of her mouth, how much more I could learn from her.
History begins with forgetting. History begins with memory and its willful lapses. When my grandmother was annoyed at me, she would call me Schweinhund (pig-dog). After Trump’s inauguration, I see on Facebook that my friend’s daughter was evacuated from her (Jewish) day school because of bomb threats. I read in the news that headstones are knocked over in (Jewish) cemeteries. I stare at the photos, crooked headstones like broken teeth. What has been emptied? The school. The lungs at the end of the sentence.
My mother had an abortion between my birth and the birth of my only brother. My grandfather died and my mom said she felt too sad, she didn’t want the grief of her father’s death to override the joy of her pregnancy. A tulip stilled by a March frost. She must have been thirty-nine when she had this abortion. I must have been thirteen when she told me, in a car driving home, a cemetery to our right and colonial houses to our left. The seatbelt against my chest like the paws of a protective stone lion. This was a secret between us, something passed down from one woman to the next, a silhouette.
One year it snowed on April 1 and my mother thought we woke up early and covered the entire yard in laundry detergent to fool her. For a moment, she couldn’t see snow, only the cool icing of her cardboard cake surrounding our house. I remember the red rubber ball my grandfather bought me on the beach of Sheepshead Bay that I loved more than anything. Years after he died, I popped it, trying to understand how air could be so firm, containable. I cried in disbelief as though his love had kept it round. I let it escape, the air he gave me. I, inflated with sorrow.
II. “. . . TO SEND THIS NAÏVE, JEW-LOVING FOOL INTO THE WHITE HOUSE.”
When Trump takes office, I am dating someone who looks and acts more Jewish, really, than I am. Who grew up with both the culture and the religion. I’m leaving Chicago for the weekend to visit Brooklyn a few weeks after our abortion and e-mail him from the airport,
You are the first person I’ve ever let watch me touch myself. I just wanted to tell you that.
I am trying to be awkwardly honest, trying to forge intimacy after weeks of bleeding. As in, here is the fistful of violets I carried through a wet field for you. When my plane lands, I check my e-mail for a response: I’m really glad you trusted me enough to touch yourself in front of me. I felt really close to you. On a different note, a little boy at the coffee shop this morning to this dad:
What’s that on the wall?
A map of the world.
Where are we?
(Dad points.) About there. And what’s that over there? Australia.
And where are the airports? They’re all over. They’re everywhere. And the fire stations?
They’re all over, too.
Okay. Where’s Lake Michigan? (Dad points.)
And is there other water?
All the spaces in between are water.
It is hard to read his tender observation about a father and son. I think about how to respond and check the news as I wait to deplane. In our neighboring Midwestern state of Ohio, representative Candice Keller announced today, two weeks after my mother’s birthday: Just as the Nazis took the lives of millions of innocent people and sold their valuables for profit, Planned Parenthood has done likewise as we have seen in hidden camera videos. Planned Parenthood is a horrific industry that profits from the innocent and the American people should be appalled at their unconscionable activities. They deserve not one more penny of either federal or state monies. No wonder America is sick of the Holocaust. My parents never planned to have more than two children. My brother is my brother only because of this abortion.
I know I am pregnant before I know I am pregnant. But it still feels like a prank. A cardboard cake. I immediately schedule an abortion even though I do not tell the person I am dating this, but let us decide together what to do. It can take weeks to get an appointment and I want to ensure any choice we make has a pragmatic action plan.
I pee on four pregnancy sticks. Two don’t work and two spell out “pregnant.” I lay them in a row on my coffee table like pale fingers from a severed hand. I only have one sonogram, the one that confirms I am pregnant. My uterus looks like outer space: so much static darkness and then tiny gray flecks. I am searching for the smallest planet. The doctor circles it with a white crayon, Here, she says. I start to cry. My doctor leaves to give me privacy. It is a double sadness because I do want children and I want to feel joy in this moment. I am sad about the imminent loss. I am sad I cannot be joyous.
I ask the person I’m dating the next day if he wants to see the sonogram. It’s his choice. He does. We look at it together, lying in bed, wrapped in wonderment.
I cry silently, my head on his shoulder, hoping his sweater absorbs my tears so that he cannot see or feel them. He is forty-four and says things like,
I will support whatever you choose.
I think if we stay together, we can have a family when we’re more ready, when we’ve really built a sturdy relationship.
I thought I might be too old to have kids, this is somehow a relief to know I can. It’s scary to think this might be the only chance I do have.
I nod, I understand. We’ve only been dating six weeks. I think I store the sonogram in a safe place, but somehow it gets lost. Somehow I lose it.
Three weeks after I have an abortion, Sean Spicer, while comparing Hitler to Syrian President Bashar al Assad, announced that even Hitler didn’t sink to using chemical weapons . . . on his own people. Either Spicer’s forgetting chemical vapors were used in the gas chambers or he’s forgetting that 160–180,000 of the 6 million Jews exterminated were German. Hitler’s own people. They were Jewish and they were German. They were German and they were Jewish. Sean Spicer is the White House Press Secretary and Communications Director under President Trump. His own people.
Even when I decide to have an abortion, I don’t drink alcohol for the next two weeks. I eat healthy food. Kale, zucchini, garlic. I immediately start gaining weight. My stomach changes shape and I instinctually shield it from any harm with my hand. I take prenatal vitamins. Some unlanguaged part of me wants to be tender. I wish I still had the sonogram. No politician would have been able to find the fertilized embryo, it was smaller than an apple seed. Smaller than the diced garlic I eat to stay strong. The sonogram looked like the black-and-white flickering of an old projector, something you blink through as you wait for the film to start.
I didn’t think I would ever have an abortion or write an essay about it. That was for someone else’s body and someone else’s essay. But my government is telling me that Jews are not citizens or were never gassed or that the organization that helped me manifest the toughest choice I’ve had to make is equivalent to the Nazis that did gas my family. Using that logic, I am a Jew asking a Nazi to gas my child. What history is this?
In Illinois, Arthur Jones, a Neo-Nazi, announces he’s running for Congress. He describes himself as the former leader of the American Nazi Party and even Trump is not enough of a white supremacist for his liking. We were foolish enough to send this naïve, Jew-loving fool into the White House. The Illinois Republican Party repudiates his candidacy, but he goes on to win 26.5 percent of the vote in 2018. In Illinois, 56,350 citizens voted for a Nazi. In 2012, when Jones ran in the Republican congressional primary, he only received 3,861 votes. He is a Holocaust denier, claiming the Holocaust was nothing but an international extortion racket by the Jews. It’s so juvenile, but I want to show him my family tree. I want to show him the stubby branches, where my family died in concentration camps. Where is an abortion on a family tree? Is it a bud? Is it in the slight inky smudge of my name, the dot of the “i” before my name ends?
As a kid, on April Fools’ I loved going to school and learning how my friends had pranked their families: Saran wrap over the toilet bowl; short-sheeting the bed; sewing the hems of pant legs shut so they could not be pulled on. These were playful, but I saved the list for when I was at camp, trying out what meanness felt like. I got in trouble with my friends, at Jewish sleepaway camp, for picking on the daughter of the woodshop instructor. We put stones in her backpack before a hike. We snickered as she walked the trail ahead of us, weighted down. But I saw her face when she opened her backpack at the campsite. A betrayal heavier than stones. Distressed, she told the counselor. We got in trouble. Parents were summoned. I had to call my mom on the phone in front of the camp director and was afraid of her anger. Instead, she said,
I get it. You’re trying out different ways to be a leader. Meanness is one way to get people to follow. How did it feel?
There are other ways to lead. At school, you lead with kindness and humor, right? You can choose your own way. What have you learned?
The inside joke with my friends wasn’t worth seeing her face. She thought she was one of us and then realized she wasn’t. I can have fun with my friends without sacrificing someone else.
Right. So this is your choice. Remember it.
III. WHAT OTHER MONTH COULD IT BE?
My mom remembers my grandfather reading me a children’s book about a witch who goes grocery shopping and flies home with her grocery bags on her broom handle. What she recalls with amusement is how I didn’t question the existence of the witch but wondered how the witch was able to balance paper bags overflowing with food on her broom as she flew. I am shocked by how much my mom navigated between taking care of a young daughter, dealing with her dying father, and having an abortion. She was there singing “You Are My Sunshine,” changing my diaper, narrating our movements. I’m shocked because I still think like a daughter, as though it’s almost impossible to imagine her inner world was different from my experience of her outer self. A mother is history. A child does not question history. I never questioned how she existed and, by extension, how she balanced on her broom.
My brother’s existence shocked me into my consciousness, and I remember when my mom read me Steig’s Sylvester and the Magic Pebble with my sleeping brother tucked into her arms. Sylvester, a young donkey, collects pebbles. He collects one that is red and round, and when he holds it in his hoof and makes wishes they come true. When confronted by a viciously hungry lion, Sylvester panics and wishes he were a stone so that the lion would not devour him. Steig reminds us that had Sylvester not panicked, he could have wished to return safely home. Or for the lion to disappear. But it’s too late: he’s a donkey-colored stone in the field, the magic pebble only inches from his smooth side, “unable to pick it up.” Sylvester thinks, “Oh, how I wish I was myself again.” But nothing happens.
An entire year passes and Sylvester sleeps more and more, yawning into the qualities of stone. Eventually Sylvester’s parents walk to the field he’s sleeping in and spread a picnic on top of his stone-back. The flowers are in bloom and I’d like to believe it’s April. What other month could it be? Sylvester’s parents are depressed without their son, and yet he is right under them, holding their lonely picnic up. This is the moment that always made me cry. Sometimes I would cry for his parents: the very weight of the picnic is the loss his parents feel, their failed attempt to carry joy into a new April without him. Sometimes I would cry for Sylvester: to be so close to those you love, unrecognizable, unable to speak.
In this story, because Sylvester’s parents truly knew him—even though they could not see him in that moment—his father spots the magic pebble on the ground, picks it up, and places it on the picnic rock because it reminds him of his son. He brings the pebble within reach. Sylvester is able to wish himself back into his donkey body.
The language of the anti-choice movement wishes me into stone. In the “Alabama Human Life Protection Act” section 2 of Legislative Findings, finding (F) incorrectly states: “Recent medical advances prove a baby’s heart starts to beat at around six weeks.” The embryo itself is the size of: a sweet pea, lint in your pocket, a booger, a pink eraser on the tip of your pencil, a clot of blood any human bleeds into the toilet every month during a period. A six-week embryo does not have a heart. There is only one heart and one heartbeat in the body and it belongs to the pregnant person.
To believe it belongs to another is to willfully turn that person to stone in the field. At six weeks, I am a woman with a heart and there is a cluster of pulsing cells inside me. A cluster of pollen floating in the April sky.
Those who use the language of the anti-choice movement hold the red pebble out of reach. Beyond wishes, I cannot make choices for myself. I do not want my friends to see a stone and have a picnic on my back while the only heart inside me falls asleep.
This essay is an act of remembering that I am not stone. Like a can crushed by an invisible fist, I feel like I’m imploding into myself when I read legislation that represents people who fundamentally do not believe in the complexity of my own existence. I did not panic like Sylvester when faced with a lion. I did not make a wish. I spend two weeks agonizing over the hardest choice I’ve ever made.
I choose to recognize that while I felt safe enough to let him watch me touch myself in bed, I do not fully trust the person I’m dating yet. Moments in which I feel anxious or small with him make me question how bursts of emotional belittlement would carry over to a parenting dynamic. While he’s been supportive through this pregnancy—bringing me comfort food and resting with me when I’m tired—I cannot shake this doubt.
I choose to recognize that I am still in love with my previous partner. That only two months ago, I was ready to have children with him but then discovered that he cheated on me. That I didn’t think anything could feel worse than finding out the person I was planning a family with still had fantasies of another life with someone else. His fantasy made my own future dissolve. His hand on my stomach, telling me he wanted to have a baby with me, feels like an aberration I invented. History never begins when you think it does. Now, here I am, cross- legged on a couch, crying. All of my being recognizes that I cannot have a child with another person at this time. I was ready and now I’m not. I was ready and have to accept that now the “we” is different.
I choose to recognize that on my community college professor’s salary, I cannot afford to support a child on my own. My rent is currently six hundred dollars a month for one room in a two-room apartment.
I mourn for my parents, who are in their seventies and do not yet have grandkids. I watched my dad play with my best friend’s son, the glee in his gate as he hoisted a one-year-old onto a swing. I cry for myself, because an abortion opens up the possibility that my parents may never live to play with grandkids, that we will not experience these shifting relationships.
But I choose to believe that there will be a better circumstance in the future to have a child, whether that’s adoption, or fostering, or through my own body. This belief is more like fragile hope. A delicate yet forceful confidence I hold in myself, for myself. It is more than a wish on a pebble, it is my will.
As I am sitting with my options, as I am mourning my choices, I begin to feel morning sickness. Cleaning products make me want to heave. As does the scent of eggs. I feel a secret kinship with my friends who went through this. Especially my friend Kathy, who loved coffee and could not be near it for three months. It’s strange to know this will end in a week. It’s terrifying to think this might be my only chance to experience my body in this way. When my friends sit around talking about their pregnancies, with their small children playing on the carpet, I know I will remain quiet.
But the “Alabama Human Life Protection Act” is not quiet. Legislative Finding (i) boldly states: It is estimated that 6,000,000 Jewish people were murdered in German concentration camps during World War II; 3,000,000 people were executed by Joseph Stalin’s regime in Soviet gulags. . . . All of these are widely acknowledged to have been crimes against humanity.”
Legislative Finding (i) continues with a false comparison: “By comparison, more than 50 million babies have been aborted in the United States since the Roe decision in 1973, more than three times the number who were killed in German death camps, Chinese purges, Stalin’s gulags, Cambodian killing fields, and the Rwandan genocide combined.”
In this comparison, making a choice about my own life—to live in a way that seems healthiest to my emotional and economic survival—is committing a crime against humanity. In this comparison, I am a Nazi; a member of the Red Army; a PLA soldier; a member of the Khmer Rouge regime; part of the Hutu- led militia.
At white supremacist rallies throughout America, participants are chanting, “Jews will not replace us! Jews will not replace us!” Ironically, they do not want us to have abortions. But at Planned Parenthood in Chicago, no one is picketing. I state my name and the time of my appointment to get buzzed in through the locked door.
If history begins with someone else’s memory, then I want you to have mine: you cry as the anesthesiologist puts you under for the procedure. Ten minutes later, you wake up, crying. Your body feels empty. Like you are the shore exposed at low tide. But you know the space between the sand is water. You know that this emptiness is just a bud that will open into all of the choices that happen next.
IV. BETWEEN WISHING AND WILLING
A week later, the person I’m dating takes me to his niece’s bat mitzvah. I meet all his close and extended family. I wander around the venue as they take family portraits. I am not included. We’ve only been together eight weeks. I am still bleeding from the abortion. I go into the bathroom while they’re posing for photographs to check on my pad.
Sometimes I think I would feel more Jewish if I understood my own family’s history better. But, being Jewish is precisely why I don’t know very much. Like many who lost family in the Holocaust, we do not talk about it. Unlike America, though, we are not sick of it.
Sometimes I picture my grandmother, pregnant with my mom in 1943, while her husband is off on a ship fighting in World War II, while all the rest of our relatives are being murdered. I never asked my grandma what that was like. How do you ask, “What was that like?” My great grandfather offering to pay for our relatives to come to America. Our relatives refusing. My grandmother, pregnant and waiting for her young husband to return.
Sometimes I am glad I don’t know more about my family’s history. I have fewer reasons to be loyal to the borders of certain nations and faiths. Like a silhouette, women in my family pass on atheism to the next generation. When I was six I asked my mom, What happens when we die? Nothing happens, she said. You stop existing.
But what does nothing feel like? I wanted to know.
It’s the absence of all our senses and thought.
But I whined, I can’t imagine what that’s like. I can’t imagine not being me. So my mom looked at me calmly and said, There is nothing to fear. It doesn’t hurt. You don’t have memory so you can’t miss anything. Can you remember what it felt like before you were born, when you didn’t exist?
What do you picture? she asked.
A speck of dust in outer space. But a warm outer space like it’s a pool. Okay, that’s nonexistence.
I was no longer scared. Sometimes I would crawl into the back of the coat closet and close the door. Sit behind the wool sweaters and umbrellas. Like a sonogram, it was quiet and dark, and the world went on without me. My grandfather gave me a red rubber ball and my mother gave me this red pebble. History begins with questions. A question mapping itself into existence.