Surrender, Dorothy - Parts 2 & 3
When I was a teenager, I had many female friends who complained constantly about their mothers with ferocious intensity, about actions that more often than not seemed trivial to me – refusing to buy an expensive pair of jeans, establishing a curfew of eleven on weeknights, requiring that a boy come into the house and say hello before taking them out. All of those so-called demands sounded perfectly reasonable to me though I never said so; instead I perfected a concerned but non-committal expression so that I would appear supportive.
At the same time, my friends were respectful but also, I think now, intimidated by my mom. Not that they saw much of her, nor did I. She was working various office jobs that took her out of the house even before I was up for school, and it was after dinnertime when she finally got home. When she was around, it was her silences that I think unnerved my friends. Other mothers seemed particularly inquisitive when I was over, asking about school, family, where we lived; any question, really, to keep the conversation going. My mom didn’t do that. She remained aloof, shadowy, peripheral.
It was only at these moments that I remember being truly angry with her. Angry and embarrassed, because I recognized that her silences made people uncomfortable. I was new to the high school where many of the other students had grown up together, so it was hard enough for me to make friends. And she wasn’t even making an effort. If she didn’t feel like it, why didn’t she just leave the room? Instead, she would lean against the kitchen counter or – if we were in the living room – perch herself on the ottoman and stare off to the side. I thought that very rude at the time, and was quick to get whatever friend out of her proximity and make them forget about her as fast as possible.
To her credit, she would always say hello and smile politely. Maybe she felt guilty about working so much and wanted to include herself in these conversations but was just too worn out. I never confronted her. There seemed no point. (I suspect now that it was partly research she was doing; eavesdropping to find out about the lives of young girls. Her first book of essays was titled For Real, the catchphrase of my friend Julie back then. Every other statement we made seemed to be met with a “For real?” from Julie, with a relentless drawn-out incredulity that seems phony now. Mom’s book was a meditation on such hyperbolic exaggerations of female teenagers, how every little thing seemed titanic at any given moment.)
Maybe I’m romanticizing that time. Maybe my mother and I did have grand, operatic arguments. Shrill voices, vile remarks, slammed doors. In any case, no sharp, clawing resentments remain. It could be that something simply aligned between us and we didn’t need those resentments; instead, we filled those moments with the joy and calm of being with one another.
There is no joy or calm with Ms. Banks, who barks from across her desk, “Jesus Christ, how far along are you?” The desk has a glass top, gleaming and strangely free of finger smudges. It’s not the sort of desk that I would think would find itself in a prison, but then again I never thought I would find myself in a prison either. I know she is Ms. Banks only from her regulation nametag, which reminds me of those once worn by servers in diners. It has been a long time since I’ve been to a greasy diner. Like the one where Tina and I used to meet to drink black coffee too late at night and talk about how the whole planet was going to hell. Thinking so casually about it, laughing, rolling our eyes at the state of affairs in this country. Back when we could laugh about it. Thinking we could change things.
Ms. Banks wears her nametag securely pinned above the breast pocket of her beige suit jacket. She is staring at my stomach like adolescent boys used to stare at my bosom: in awe.
“Nine weeks,” I tell her, though I've known longer than that, have felt it longer than that.
“Jesus,” she says again.
He had nothing to do with it, I think, but I hold my tongue and my breath.
“I want an abortion,” I say, letting it go.
She taps her pencil on her desk, trying to stare me down like a high school principal instead of a prison warden. I feel like I'm about to get detention. Then I realize: I already am in detention.
More urgently she wants to know, “Which one was it?” But, “No,” I say before she is even finished with the question.
She frowns hideously. “We must know,” she says. “There's no way around it.” I stare blankly at her. She begins the annoying tapping of the pencil again.
If Tina and I were back at that diner right now, I would have a stack of blueberry pancakes soaked in syrup. I wouldn’t even wait for the butter to melt completely.
“We'll find him,” says Ms. Banks ominously.
Maybe a chocolate shake to wash down the pancakes.
I shrug like an adolescent, shifting dramatically in my seat. Her face changes gears, something a little more sympathetic, and she leans in.
“I can arrange something here,” she whispers.
I shrug again, though I know what she means.
“I know doctors who will do it,” she continues. “Safely.” Where were they when all of those women bled to death from wire hangers twisted in all the wrong directions.
“No,” I say aloud. She frowns.
“Good doctors,” she says.
“I'm sure they are, but I don't want them. I want to go to Kansas. I want it legal.”
She throws the pencil on her desk and crosses her arms. “You don't understand me, dear.” Dear. A dear caught in headlights. “I'm trying to help you. You have alternatives, choices—”
I start to laugh. Insanely. “I'm sorry,” I explain. “Some things just strike me as funny. Or maybe you haven’t been watching the news for the past ten years?”
She is not amused.
“Look,” I say, “I know my rights. I want it done in Kansas.”
She locks eyes with me, disappointment splattered across her face. In another time, maybe we would be friends. I like her determination and her Ms., and I know that she's taken a risk by even suggesting a private abortion.
She has the form ready on her desk. She is not stupid. “You were raped,” she says.
“No,” I answer.
She stops writing. “No?” she repeats without looking up from the form.
“No,” I repeat.
She takes a deep breath, considers this. “I have to put it down as Rape. They won't allow it otherwise.”
I nod. “But it wasn't rape,” I say.
Now she looks up, meets my eyes, the hardness of my gaze returned. “You understand the regulations—”
“That answer isn't for the form,” I interrupt. “It's for you.”
It takes a second to register. I knew she wasn't stupid. She nods quietly and begins to write again.
I have one picture taped to the wall of my cell. It is of my mother, carefully cut from a newspaper. When we still had paper news that we could recklessly toss away. It was taken years ago in front of a popular Gentlemen’s Club in New York City where one of the dancers had been raped and then stabbed repeatedly. My mom’s face is fuzzy, out-of-focus. The figures behind her, of which there are many, are blurred as well. Her mouth is twisted, her eyes half-shut and dark. But there is something defiant in this expression, in the just of her chin, in the way she holds the picket sign in her hand—a tight grip, despite the arthritis that had already begun.
It is my favorite picture in the world.
The dancer survived the attack and later appeared on several news shows, until one where a female interviewer asked, “Which was worse: the rape or the stabbing?” The dancer closed her mouth after that, and seemed to vanish from the media.
I sit in my cell, waiting for them to come like I used to wait for dates to show up. My mind is cluttered, a jigsaw puzzle, the pieces tossed around as if by an angry child.
My mom used to buy me such puzzles, to pass the time after school while she was working. I think of something she told me, years ago, in that basement. “Hearing is incidental. You have to keep your eyes open.” An odd thing for her to say, it seems now, since she spent much of her later life speaking to large groups, mostly women. As GiGi, she had carved a career of social activism after her second book, High Heels, struck a chord. It was an exposé about sexual discrimination in the corporate world, and since GiGi had gone from Secretary to Administrative Assistant to Corporate Aide, she knew quite a bit about the subject.
I spent much of my teenage years traveling with her from UCLA to Washington to Kansas City – wherever there was a rally or a demonstration, GiGi found it. She became a media figure, with the inevitable backlash. “Eccentric,” “Bitch,” “Dyke” – she embraced all of the designated monikers proudly.
She was one of the keynote speakers at the first big pro-choice protest in Kansas, years ago when there was still a debate. When there was still a chance.
I saw her murder like most other people did: on the internet. One second there she was, standing at the podium in Kansas City, four inches tall on my screen, shaking her fist in the air, the loud, cracked voice booming out. And then, seconds later, the rat-tat-tat of the firing and BLIP, she vanished. Blown behind the podium with a semi-automatic, sucked from this world in the blink of an eye. It’s still there, still available, still searchable. At least I think it is. It has been awhile since I’ve had access to any electronic device.
The worst: REELAMERICAN222 who posted the slow-motion footage accompanied by the song, “Thank Heaven for Little Girls.”
I saw it many times, there was no way around it. Tina had captured it, too. She had recorded every single one of my mom’s appearances, not knowing that this would be the final one. Hers was from the closest vantage point, the sharpest focus, and I was able to freeze-frame the final moment of my mom's life, touch her face for the last time, my warm fingers on the cold smooth screen of my phone.
Goodbye GiGi. Goodbye Georgia Grant.
Rooted, sedentary, hopeless. No, not sedentary. I’m about to move. They are coming down
the hall. I can hear the metallic sound of their footsteps. It will be good to breathe fresh air again, even if it is only for a little while.