Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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Not for her, the evening shift waiting tables at the truck stop, kids left home alone, put the oldest in charge and hope for the best. No, and not for her, either, the kind of man who speaks softly, who promises to bring home the moon next Friday in his pocket — unless he should happen to be drunk, in which case it won’t be the moon he hands you, but a shoe, hurled from across the room, or a chair, or a hammer. Nor the look in Gran’s eyes when the family, all but Daddy, show up again on her doorstep, the kids with holes in their shoes, blankets and pillows in their arms; the starting over, again, and again.
As for the dopey boys who give her the old “I wanna take care of you” routine, they’re just wasting their breaths. Mary Ann has been taking care of herself for a long time. And now, especially, she must stay on her toes, not fall for any foolishness. Which is why she doesn’t tell him. Why she spends that whole warm, lazy week with him at the river, and never says a word about it.
September, 1969. Mary Ann is a junior at U.C. Berkeley. When she came back to college last year, she quit smoking dope and turned her back on the hippie crowd. That is, except for Charlie, who still likes to get high, who still goes up on Mount Tamalpais to drop acid. Charlie is her boyfriend. Around his neck he wears a string of love beads, green and blue and black. He doesn’t eat meat; he thinks it’s wrong to raise animals, to enter a relationship with them and gain their trust, only to turn around and kill them. He supports himself by doing odd jobs and occasional carpentry, and looks with disdain upon those who labor at meaningless, “straight” jobs, what he calls “working on Maggie’s farm.”
The last week before the fall quarter begins, they go away to the Russian River together. Charlie has just installed a new clutch in his VW van — a marathon ordeal involving the smoking of numerous joints, meticulous study of the VW mechanic’s manual, lengthy conferences with housemates and friends. Now the van’s running great, except for the starter. “The starter’s not crucial,” he reassures her. “All we’ve got to do is remember to park on a slope.”
They pitch their tent on a stretch of beach between Mirabelle Park and Guerneville. Mary Ann lies on the inflatable raft, watches the tops of the redwoods skim the circumference of a cloudless sky. Charlie’s fair skin burns easily; he builds himself a ramada, sticking four poles in the sand and draping a blanket over the top. While Mary Ann drifts, he sits cross-legged in its shade, drinking lemonade from a gallon cooler and studying The Whole Earth Catalog.
It’s the middle of the week; they have the beach to themselves. They swim nude in the green silky water. Charlie’s skin turns almost as red as his hair, and begins to peel, despite the ramada and the long-sleeved cotton shirts; by contrast, the eyelashes that fringe his blue eyes appear white as down feathers. She swims to him. He places her legs around his waist, nuzzles her breasts. “You know what?” he says. “They’re bigger. Your tits are bigger than they used to be.”
“It happens just before my period.”
“I never noticed it before.”
Some mornings Charlie makes oatmeal on the Coleman stove, flavoring it with sunflower seeds and raisins. Other days they have breakfast at a restaurant in town. It’s on one of these days that Mary Ann discovers, folded away in a dim corner of the antique store, the quilt. It’s very old, with frayed edges, but the design — blue petals fanning out from sunny yellow centers — seems familiar. She knows the house where this quilt belongs: the canopied porch swing, the metal bed frame, painted white; the front room with its lace-curtained windows and old-fashioned shades, half-drawn, crocheted tassels hanging. Gran’s house. The house they always came back to, until she was eleven. In that pivotal year, her daddy went to jail. Mama moved the family north to Redding. No forwarding address.
Mary Ann holds up the quilt for Charlie to see. “Look at this! It’s really old.”
Charlie glances up from a Lionel train set, walks over, and smooths the quilt with his palm. “Yeah. Be a cool thing to have in our bus.”
“Or even a real bedroom.”
“But it’d give the bus kind of a down-home touch, don’t you think?”
The bus is merely an idea. Charlie’s idea. He’s obsessed with getting a school bus, fixing it up to live in. He understands, of course, that traveling around would be problematic for Mary Ann, whose fall quarter classes begin in eight days. Still, he remains hopeful: one of these days she’ll come to her senses, realize that college is just the same old bullshit in a fancy package.
They ask the lady behind the counter how much for the quilt. “Fifty dollars,” she replies crisply. “Price is pinned to the edge.” Then, softening a little, she adds, “That’s the Dresden Plate design. Pretty, isn’t it?”
Mary Ann nods. “l’ve seen it someplace before.”
“Oh, no doubt. Used to be common enough. But then, so were quilts.”
They carry it back to its shelf in the rear of the store. Mary Ann’s fingers rest on the cloth. “Pretty fancy price, I’d say, for this worn-out old thing.” But of course, that’s not what she really thinks. The quilt isn’t worn-out at all. It’s beautiful. She would like to have it.
“I think it’s in pretty good shape,” Charlie says. “Why don’t we buy it?”
“Let’s think about it.”
“By the time you make up your mind, we’ll have spent all the money.”
She shrugs, and starts walking out. Charlie pauses by the Lionel train set, then follows her. She wishes just for once they could switch roles: that he would say, “It costs too much,” and she could say, “But Charlie, it’s beautiful.”
As soon as she pays her fees and receives her fall registration card, she heads over to the student hospital for a test. The results are positive, as she knew they would be. The doctor, a silver-haired woman, brisk and efficient, asks if the father is “out of the picture.”
“You mean is he willing to get married?” Mary Ann asks. “Yes. I think he’d be willing.” An understatement. He’d be ecstatic. The hippie wedding on Mount Tamalpais. Flowers in everybody’s hair, flutes and tambourines. “But I’m not willing.”
“Have you thought about adoption?”
“Listen, I’ve thought about getting married, I’ve thought about adoption. I’ve thought about being a single parent living on welfare. What I want is an abortion.” She hesitates, then asks bluntly, “Can you help me?”
The doctor gives her a quick, surprised glance. “I’m supposed to ask these questions,” she says gently.
“I know. I’m sorry —”
“No, actually it’s good that you come straight to the point. But I’m afraid the only way I can help is by reminding you that abortion is illegal. You’d be risking your life, not to mention your ability to bear children in the future, by trying to find one here. There are other countries, however. Japan. Sweden. For those on a student budget, Mexico.”
“It’s legal there?” Mary Ann asks.
“Not officially. But tolerated. Most large cities have clinics, staffed with reputable doctors. Clean and, from what I hear, reasonably safe.” She writes down a number on a slip of paper and hands it to Mary Ann. “If you’re sure that’s what you want, give these people a call. They can help you make arrangements.”
She is walking down College Avenue. The afternoon is warm; a mild breeze smelling of salt and fish blows in off the Bay. Above her head, the leaves of the trees shine glittery green, shedding a kaleidoscope of light on the pavement. The test result was no big surprise, but this elation that comes over her as she walks home is quite unexpected. Wonderingly, she touches her hand to her belly.
The next morning she phones the number the doctor gave her, and later in the day begins the paperwork for a $300 university loan. Still, she toys with the idea of keeping the baby. Marrying Charlie. Or maybe not marrying Charlie, raising the baby on her own.
The woman on the other end of the line asks, “Is there someone going with you? A parent or boyfriend?”
“No. But I’ll be fine. I’m quite capable of getting through this on my own.”
“I’m sure you are,” says the woman. “It’s not a good idea, though. If you don’t have someone already, we’ll pair you up with another woman, someone in the same situation.”
Mary Ann insists that in her case, it really isn’t necessary, but the woman ignores her. An hour later, she calls back to say that Mary Ann’s traveling partner will be Francine, who lives in San Francisco on Potrero Hill, and gives her the phone number.
Francine’s house is a faded red shack with cracked white trim around the windows, abalone shells bordering the flower beds; in the center of the door there’s a four-leaf clover of stained glass, green against milky rose. It’s the sort of cottage you’d expect to find on the beach, among sand dunes, except here, there are the sounds of the Bayshore Freeway in place of the ocean.
Mary Ann knocks. A girl with dark hair chopped into bangs across her forehead appears at the door, swathed in the odor of patchouli. She seems young, her body slight as a child’s. Francine’s daughter? With the rudeness of a child she stares at Mary Ann, then says, “You’re early.”
“I gave myself a little extra time, in case I got lost.”
“I’m not done packing.” Francine turns and drifts back into the house, leaving the door open.
Mary Ann hesitates, then follows. “You’re bringing a suitcase?”
“El Paso’s halfway across the country, you know.”
“But we’re only going there overnight.”
Francine’s look implies that if Mary Ann is gullible enough to believe that. . . . She disappears into the bedroom, calling over her shoulder, “Make yourself some tea, if you want. The stuff’s there in the kitchen.”
The kitchen, with high ceilings and two east windows letting in the light, would be a cheerful place — except for the mountain of dirty dishes piled in the sink, the counter top littered with crumbs and patches of jam blackened by clumps of ants, their busy trails leading over the edge of the counter and down along the baseboard to disappear behind a cabinet. Controlling the urge to roll up her sleeves and whip the kitchen into shape, Mary Ann puts the water on to boil and scrounges around till she finds a box of Lipton’s. “Shall I make you a cup?” she calls to Francine.
“Yeah, okay. You finding everything all right in that catastrophe?”
“I found the Lipton’s.”
“Oh God, don’t use that. It’s fifty years old. There should be some English Breakfast somewhere. And honey if you want.” Francine comes out of the bedroom, dressed in black bell-bottoms, a red India-print blouse. She sets a beaten leather suitcase by the front door. Mary Ann, succumbing, uses the sponge to sweep some of the ants into the sink. “Pretty gross, huh?” says Francine. “I feel so godawful sick in the mornings, I can barely move, let alone face that mess. You get sick in the morning?”
“Hmm.” Francine clears a space at the table, shoving aside spiral notebooks and printed flyers, a carved wooden stash box, a candle stuck in a wine bottle. “Tea and a couple of cigarettes, that’s breakfast these days. Speaking of which. . . .” She digs through the pile of things she just shoved aside. “They must be in my purse. Now where did I? . . .”
“Over there, next to the couch,” says Mary Ann.
“Oh, right. Thanks.” Francine fishes out a pack of Kools, lights one, and holds it between her lips while she swipes at the table with a cloth. “Listen,” says Francine. “I think it’s only fair to warn you, I may not go through with this. Can’t tell till I get down there, check out the vibes.”
“Maybe you should think about it before spending the money on a plane ticket.”
“My boyfriend’s not hurtin’ for money. He says — get this — he says to me, if I wanta be a dipshit and get married, okay, we’ll get married. Whatever’s right. How’s that for a proposal?” Francine flicks the ash from her cigarette, glances at Mary Ann. “The dude’s a farmer, up in Humboldt.”
Mary Ann nods.
“It’s sad, seeing as I really dig kids,” Francine says. “Okay. So I can deal with that. It’s not the end of the world. Except then I come across this damn book with a bunch of pictures. Hold on a sec, I’ll show you.” She climbs onto a chair, gets a book down from above the refrigerator, and brings it back to the table.
“Yeah, pictures. So I’m having second thoughts. Like, what if this baby inside me’s already got a soul or something? It’s not just the Jesus freaks who believe in that. One time I read this thing, it said we all choose the life we’re going to live, the whole scene. Before we ever come in.”
“Oh, well,” says Mary Ann, “for all I know, that could be true. But so what? Looks like the soul that chose me must have chosen for me to say no.” This whole conversation is beginning to rub her the wrong way.
“Yeah, well, just have a look at these pictures.”
Mary Ann reaches across the table and lays her hand down flat on the book, so the pages stop turning. “If it’s all the same to you,” she says, “I’d rather not.”
Francine stares at Mary Ann. “Sure, okay. I can dig it.”
They get their tickets, Francine checks her suitcase, they find the gate. People are already lining up to board the plane. They’re almost to the head of the line when Francine grabs Mary Ann’s arm. “Listen, kid, I’m awful sorry to do this to you, but you’re gonna have to go on without me. I got this real scuzzy feeling about the whole deal.”
Mary Ann, amazed to observe her own self-assurance wobble, says, “C’mon, Francine, if we just get on the plane, it’ll be okay. We’ll get through it.”
There is a long pause, as Francine’s brown eyes drill into her, calculating the measure of support available from that quarter. Then she shakes her head and, turning away, dashes off into the crowd. Mary Ann marches onto the plane and locates her seat. The plane’s not even half full; probably she’ll have all three seats to herself. At least she won’t have to talk to anyone. Surprised at the way her hands tremble, she takes out one of the assigned texts for her sociology seminar and begins to read.
At the last possible moment, Francine hurries up the aisle and slides into her seat. She glances at Mary Ann, then gives her concentrated attention to the stewardess’s spiel about emergency exits and the proper use of an oxygen mask.
The El Paso airport is full of women traveling in pairs, without luggage. They negotiate with a Mexican cab driver to take them across the border — on a shopping spree, they tell him. The clinic is just a few blocks away from the big Juárez marketplace. The driver tells them to be sure and visit his cousin’s licuado stand inside the mercado: “Licuados Rosita,” Rosita being the mother-in-law of his cousin. “Taste the flavor papaya,” he says. “Very delicious.”
“We’ll do that for sure,” says Mary Ann.
With directions in hand, they make their way through the dusty, glaring-hot streets to a modest building that looks like a dentist’s office. A black, wrought-iron fence encloses a tiny patch of yard in front, with palms and geraniums in bright yellow pots. They enter through a glass door and cross a thickly carpeted reception room to an inner office. A receptionist introduces them to Señor Romero.
“Not ‘Doctor’?” says Mary Ann.
“No, no ladies. I am the administrator.”
“Oh.” Still, Señor Romero inspires confidence: a tall man with thick white hair, intelligent eyes, a profile that might have been drawn from the bust of a Roman senator. One detail, however, undermines the reassuring effect: the rings, large and definitely not fake, that flash from the fingers of both hands.
“Could we speak with the doctor, then?” asks Mary Ann.
Señor Romero’s face tightens ever so slightly, as though he were forced to politely ignore some gross indiscretion on the part of an honored guest. “The doctor is occupied at this time. But I can answer any questions you have.”
“Well, maybe we could have a look at his credentials?” Mary Ann persists.
“Certainly.” He points to the wall behind them. “Right there, the frame in the middle. Take your time, please!”
They both turn around and stare at the piece of paper hanging in its frame. The writing is in Spanish. “Not quite the way they described it,” Francine murmurs.
Mary Ann turns back to Señor Romero. “I’m sorry, but we don’t read Spanish, and my friend and I would feel more comfortable if we could meet the doctor.”
“But of course, ladies. You will meet him. Tonight, after you check into the clinic. This is not a problem at all.”
“You mean after we pay the fees.”
“Yes, of course.”
She and Francine exchange a look. At this point, Señor Romero does a very tactful thing: he excuses himself, leaving them alone in his office.
Francine sinks into a chair. “This must be the vibe I was picking up back at the airport. But it’s worse than I thought. This is really creepy.”
Mary Ann says, “Pretty bad, I agree.”
“What shall we do?”
Mary Ann stands up. She has to get out of this room, out of this soft, phony office. Go somewhere and calm down, talk herself back into a more reasonable frame of mind. Otherwise, she’ll lose it for sure and put herself on the next flight home. “Let’s go somewhere and think it over.”
Francine says, “Good idea. Let’s go back to San Francisco and think it over.”
They are walking back toward the mercado. The street is clogged with trucks and buses that groan and cough and vomit black smoke. They come to a hotel, and after a brief discussion, decide to rent a room for the night, an absurd little turquoise room with pale pink doors and lumpy beds covered in plaid. After resting there for an hour or so, they go on to the mercado for tacos and Pepsi. They walk up and down the aisles, looking at serapes and embroidered blouses, fingering the cheap bright pottery. When, quite by accident, they come upon “Licuados Rosita,” they both order papaya.
Mary Ann is entirely absorbed in pretending that she has come to Juárez to shop, which is soothing. She does not have to go back to the clinic, unless she wants to. For now, she doesn’t even have to think about it.
They buy things. Francine buys a poncho, an oblong length of thick wool, dark red with wavy black lines running through it, and a hole in the middle for the head. Mary Ann buys a brown and cream blanket of undyed wool. As they walk away, she thinks of Charlie — he loves this kind of thing, all natural. She hesitates, then goes back and buys him a blanket too. As they are leaving, she says to Francine, “That was dumb. I should have bought them at the same time. They’d have given me a better deal.”
Francine says, “Five bucks is a pretty good deal.”
They walk back to the hotel room, undress, prepare for bed. Francine, sitting on the edge of her bed in her flannel pajamas, says, “You’re going back there tomorrow, aren’t you? You’re going to go through with it.”
Francine gets up, pounding a wooden hairbrush against the palm of her hand as she paces about the room. Then she stops in front of Mary Ann. Below the dark bangs, her eyes flash. “I just don’t get it” she says. “How can you be so fucking calm? You ever, even once, lost your cool? Been scared out of your mind?”
“Just try not to think about it,” says Mary Ann.
Francine glares at her for another moment. Then she flops down on her own bed. “Right. Good advice.”
They turn out the light, but Francine’s words keep tossing around in her head, followed by a procession of images from years back. She would hurry home after school to fix dinner for her younger brothers and sisters, get them ready for bed and do the dishes, while her mama was waitressing out at the truck stop — always the evening shift, because that was the only time you made any money. The boys were hardly more than babies, leaving trails in every room, but her two sisters were old enough to be uneasy about this arrangement. Before they’d go to sleep, they’d make her check every lock and window two or three times. “But how can you be sure nobody’s out there?” they’d say. “Aren’t you ever scared?”
Mary Ann would say no, she wasn’t, and they better hush up now and go to sleep. But Tracy, the second oldest, voiced the fear they all shared: “And what if Mama don’t ever come back? Bet you’d be scared then, huh?” That gave her something to chew on, later, when she crawled into her own bed, the TV droning on in the front room, only not loud enough to blot out the harsh, lonely silence.
In the middle of the night she wakes up. A yellow neon reflection skips across the wall next to her bed, and from somewhere nearby, a man sings a weepy Mexican ballad. She cannot understand the words, but assumes the song is stupid and sentimental. In spite of this, it works on her. Maybe because here, at this hour, it’s so easy to picture Charlie with a little redheaded boy tagging at his heels. One thing about Charlie — he knows how to play, to be silly and have fun. Then, an even more treacherous thought: Charlie, with a leather carpenter’s belt slung around his waist — building them a home. A nice frame house with a pitched roof and a front porch.
She glances over at the other bed, at Francine’s small, huddled body. She thinks of those nights back in Redding when she couldn’t sleep, because the TV in the front room, and even the radio beside her bed, were not enough. She would climb out of her own bed and cross over to the bunks where her sisters slept, turn back the covers, and crawl in with one or the other, wrapping her arms around her little sister’s warm body, and then, only then, fall asleep.
Francine is drinking pineapple juice and smoking a cigarette, watching Mary Ann eat sausage and eggs with thick corn tortillas. “I’ve made up my mind,” she announces. “I came all this way, might as well go through with it. They give you sodium pentothal. It’s not like you’ve got to feel a lot of pain.”
“Good,” says Mary Ann. “I’m sure it’ll be all right.”
Their “hospital” room looks very much like the hotel room: turquoise walls and regular twin beds, maybe a little less lumpy. None of the nurses speak English. Mary Ann does not see the doctor until she’s on the operating table, knees bent, her feet strapped into stirrups. By then, of course, it doesn’t matter. In his green surgical gown and white cap, he is barely distinguishable from the nurses. The doctor does not speak to her, never glances at her face. A girl, twelve or thirteen years old, stands to one side, squeezing Mary Ann’s hand. The girl’s hands are small and quite strong. Mary Ann squeezes back. Someone sticks an IV needle in her other arm.
She is back in the old house, climbing the back stairs she never knew were here; she never knew the house had an attic. There are wide cracks in the walls, and the wind slices through. But such huge rooms! She calls down to her brothers and sisters, “Come here, look what I found.”
Her little brothers and sisters race around, shrieking happily. Her mother arrives, carrying a large cardboard box. “These are for you,” she says. “Gran wants you to have them.” Inside the box is a set of china dishes, delicately flowered. They seem very old. “They’re German,” says Mama. “And valuable. You have to be careful.”
Mary Ann sets them out on the kitchen table, one by one. But suddenly she realizes the floor’s not level. The table top slants at a ridiculous angle, and the dishes are sliding off. She grabs for them, but they go all over, her lovely china dishes — into the air, onto the floor. When they land, they don’t break, though. They roll crazily away, on edge, like donuts.
Her mother turns around and sees what has happened. Her eyes narrow. Mary Ann feels frightened. “Go on, then,” Mama says. “You explain it to her. She’s right in there.”
Gran is napping in the big stuffed rocker. She opens her eyes and reaches out to Mary Ann with both arms. Mary Ann climbs into her lap, and Gran rocks and rocks, smoothing her hair, humming a tuneless little song.
“Mary Ann, come on! Wake up.”
Francine’s face, leaning over her. Blurry. “I just got the word. The plane to San Francisco leaves in an hour. If we miss it, we’ve got to wait till midnight.”
“Let’s do that. I can’t move.”
“Come on, Mary Ann. They’re throwing us out of here. There’s a taxi waiting outside.”
She sleeps in the taxi all the way to the airport, and doesn’t really wake up until they’re twenty thousand feet in the air. “God,” she says. “They don’t exactly baby you after it’s over.”
“How do you feel?”
“I’ve got a gruesome case of the cramps coming on. How about you?”
Francine closes her eyes, leaning back against the seat. “I’m just glad it’s over.”
“Yeah. Me too.”
By the time they get to Francine’s house, Mary Ann feels weak and shaky. “Hey kid, you better come in and lie down for awhile,” says Francine. “I’ll make you a cup of tea. If you want, you can stay over and go in the morning.”
“I should get back to Berkeley,” says Mary Ann. “But a cup of tea sounds good.”
Francine puts some water on to boil. “I have to change out of these clothes. Be right back.” She looks hard at Mary Ann. “Sure you’re okay? You want to lie down or something?”
“No, I’m fine. Go ahead.”
But there’s the book, right on the table where they left it. Mary Ann stares at it for a moment, then reaches out and pulls it toward her. A voice in her mind says, don’t look, there’ll be plenty of time for that later on. She ignores the warning.
Francine comes back into the kitchen, taps a cigarette loose from the pack in her hand, and lights it. She sees the book lying open on the table. “Jesus! What are you trying to do, give yourself nightmares?” She closes the book and puts it back on the shelf above the refrigerator.
“I didn’t know they were like that,” Mary Ann says. “I mean, so early on.”
“I tried to tell you,” says Francine.
“I know you did.”
Francine pours the water into the teapot and sets it on the table. Then she sits on the bench next to Mary Ann and puts her arm around her. Her head barely reaches Mary Ann’s shoulder. She strokes Mary Ann’s hand. The tears begin to bunch up in the back of Mary Ann’s throat, and she’s too exhausted to think the thoughts that will hold them in.
What makes it so bad is that she knew all along and did it anyway. There’s no getting around it — she knew. She remembers with perfect clarity the way she felt that sun-dappled day, walking back home from the doctor’s office. The mysteriousness of it. The exhilaration. Even before then, that whole week at the river, preparing herself. Pretending hard, even back then, that the whole thing didn’t mean very much.
Later that evening, in a borrowed nightie, she calls Charlie from Francine’s phone. “Hey,” he says. “What’s up? I been calling for two days.”
“I’ve been over at a friend’s house. Francine. You don’t know her.”
“Oh. Are you back home now? Want me to hop in the van and come over?”
She can’t speak. The words are glued to the back of her tongue; they are solid, and won’t budge.
“Mary Ann? You still there?”
“Yeah, I’m here. How are you?”
“Your voice sounds real weird. What are you doing?”
“Um, getting ready for bed.”
She lets out a long sigh, slowly, so he doesn’t hear. “Just wanted to say hi, I guess.”
He laughs. “Know what? I took a ride up to the river yesterday, with a guy from the house here. Bought you a present.”
“l think you’re right, though. It belongs in a real house.”
“Is that what I said?”
“What you meant, anyway.”
“Yeah. . . . That was sweet of you, Charlie.”
She sees herself then. She sees herself standing among the fallen leaves on the sidewalk in front of her place on College, waving goodbye as Charlie drives off in his new school bus. The bus is beautifully finished, with yellow curtains on the windows, a bed built across the back, a kitchen counter of smooth, oiled redwood. Oddly enough, even though he is the one driving away, and she’s the one left behind on the curb, she can see the inside of the bus clearly: sun coming in through every little window, falling on the counter, on the stuffed chair, on the bed with its brown and beige blanket of undyed wool, infusing it all with a soft radiance, sad and somehow final. She stops waving, draws the quilt around her shoulders like a shawl, and turns back toward the house.