In 1994 I was twenty-two years old and had just graduated with a literature degree from the University of California at San Diego. Though I had no idea what I wanted to do for a career, I’d recently stood up on a surfboard for the first time and thought I might just have discovered my purpose in life. Nothing I’d ever done compared to the exhilaration of gliding across the face of a wave. To spend as much time in the ocean as possible, I moved into a tiny beach apartment that I shared with a receptionist and a full-time bodybuilder. By craning my head out my bedroom window, I could see a shimmering thread of the Pacific Ocean in the distance. This felt like a major accomplishment.
To avoid being driven back inland to a cheaper apartment, I urgently needed a steady income, so I got a full-time position as an assistant at a Planned Parenthood clinic. The job paid enough to cover my rent and was close enough to my apartment that I could walk to work. It was also in keeping with my feminist ideals. In my undergraduate women’s-studies classes, I’d found my tribe among classmates who debated passionately, laughed loudly, and dressed comfortably. To subvert the conventional classroom hierarchy, we sat in a circle on the floor, our unshaven legs tucked beneath us. We had heated discussions about gender constructs, institutionalized sexism, and whether a woman should feel self-conscious wearing a tampon at a nude beach. I had tossed off the artifacts of high school — curling irons, berry-flavored pink lip gloss, paralyzing self-consciousness — and discovered that it was acceptable, even desirable, to have a strong body and a critical mind. In my new job, I looked forward to playing a small role in empowering women.
In the mornings before work, I maneuvered my heavy longboard out the front door of my apartment and walked down to the beach in the crisp dawn air, zipping up my wetsuit at the shoreline and jogging into the surf. When my feet first hit the water, I recoiled both from the cold that numbed my ankles and from the thought of being pulled under the gray waves. As much as I loved surfing, I was terrified of the ocean. Every morning I fought the impulse to turn back and stay on the sand, where it was warm and dry. Big waves sometimes appeared out of nowhere, tossing my heavy board as if it were a toothpick and pinning me against the ocean floor. The first time this had happened, I’d panicked, clawing desperately at the water while I spun like a sock in the laundry. It’s impossible to know which way is up while you’re being tossed by a wave, and I quickly learned that the more I struggled, the faster I depleted my oxygen supply. If I relaxed, however, my natural buoyancy would eventually float me back to the surface.
I got out of the water at 7:30 A.M., leaving just enough time to hurry back to my apartment; pull my dripping, matted hair into a ponytail; rinse the thin white crust of salt from my face; and make it to the clinic by eight. The job was perfect for me, a literature major with a voracious appetite for people’s stories. Interviewing a client in my closetlike office, our knees nearly touching, I felt like a music fanatic who’d landed a job at a record store. Across from me sat a young woman usually around my age; many times I recognized her from the beach or campus. I’d smooth out the wrinkles in my cheap white lab coat, affect my best professional tone, and sail through a list of questions about her medical history. I’d always pause awkwardly before asking, “At what age did you first engage in sexual intercourse?” and, “How many sexual partners have you had in the past year?” I saved those two questions for last and noted the answers with a brisk nod and a click of my pen, secretly comparing the woman’s experiences to my own.
Before asking those questions, I’d try to guess if the woman across from me had a more adventurous sex life than I did and whether she had lost her virginity at a younger age than I had. I usually guessed wrong. The middle-aged former prostitute with the bleached-blond hair and leathery tan, who lingered in my office and wondered aloud how she would explain the twelve-year gap in her résumé to potential employers, had been with very few partners in the previous year. The young woman who showed up at the clinic wearing nylons in the middle of summer and looking as if she were there for a job interview had lost her virginity at an age when I was still having slumber parties.
Eighteen seemed to be the most common age at which women reported losing their virginity, though answers varied widely — even from the same patient. Flipping through someone’s chart, I might find that she’d twice answered “eighteen” in the past, but today, in an unguarded moment, had told me “fifteen.” I’d count her candor as a small victory, attributing it to my friendly, nonjudgmental manner.
In addition to taking medical histories, I administered hormone injections for birth control, described the benefits of the IUD, and once explained “the three bases” to a nervous boy who called the clinic after school and asked questions in a high-pitched voice. But the most dramatic part of the job was administering pregnancy tests. The suspense was a welcome change from the monotony of filing charts and going over birth-control options. I could tell from a patient’s eyes as she handed me her urine sample how she felt about possibly being pregnant. While she sat in the waiting room, I stood in the tiny laboratory with the dipstick, waiting to see whether the thin pink line would appear — first faint, then staining the white tip darker and darker, marking a permanent boundary between before and after.
I called the woman back into my office, maneuvering the folding door shut to provide an illusion of privacy. Most clients I saw did not want to be pregnant. When I confirmed their pregnancies, they sighed heavily and held their faces in their hands. I learned to sit in that confined space with a crying stranger, to hand her a tissue without saying anything, and to endure long silences broken only by sniffles.
These women, with their copious tears and unpredictable reactions, made me anxious, and I was grateful for the color-coded information sheets I could slip from a manila folder and hand them: purple for adoption, blue for abortion, green for prenatal care, pink for Medicaid information. I assumed that these xeroxed sheets of paper would help them regain control over their lives. As I outlined their options and helped them set up appointments, I spoke in the language of the clinic: “Clear, conscious choice.” “Intended pregnancy.” “Every child a wanted child.” I liked the sound of these words, the way they seemed to land in the churning, murky waters of these clients’ lives like an anchor, solid and certain. I wholeheartedly believed the gospel I shared in the counseling room: that if we planned carefully and made responsible decisions, we could create the lives we wanted.
I was sometimes baffled by the women’s choices. A married woman who tenderly held her squirming toddler on her lap, kissing the top of his head absent-mindedly, requested an appointment for an abortion without a moment’s hesitation. A schoolgirl dropped her backpack on the floor, rubbed her fists into her eyes, then asked about prenatal care. Day after day I counseled young women who stared blankly at me through their tears. Whether I was telling them about the adoption process, or how to get on Medicaid, or how an abortion was performed, I always reassured them that they would be fine. Like a preacher who describes in vivid detail the gilded gates of heaven, I relied heavily on my imagination in my efforts to comfort these women. In truth, I had no idea how it felt to be confronted with such a decision. I didn’t even know how to set a clear, intentional course for my own life, which at that time was very much like my surfing: Though every once in a while I found myself in just the right place at the right time, and all uncertainty dissolved in the exhilaration of the moment, more often I was off balance, trying without much success to find my feet in a world constantly in motion. Usually I found my feet too late, just as the wave buckled over my head, or I stood up in the wrong place, and the tip of my board took a nose dive, jettisoning me into the water while fifty pounds of fiberglass whipped dangerously close to my head. Sometimes I didn’t even see the wave coming until it was crashing down on me.
Once, when my father came to visit, I picked him up from the airport in a car that belched exhaust and smelled of musty wetsuits and towels. I drove him back to my cramped apartment and searched my kitchen for something to offer him, finding only granola, black coffee, and a half-eaten pint of ice cream. As we walked along the beach, he looked intently into my sunburned face and said, “If you ever want to do anything with your life, you’ll need to move away from the ocean.”
I was beginning to think he was right. At work I was tired of repeating the same words day after day to women who seemed to look right through me. I was dating a man whose bedsheets were always gritty with sand, who lived in a tiny, crowded beach apartment like mine and didn’t own enough dishes to serve a decent meal for two. While my college friends were continuing their educations or getting married, I was saving my pennies for trips to Baja and Hawaii to surf. I was tired of being broke all the time and building a life around the fleeting pleasure of riding a wave. I decided to apply to graduate school to study journalism, a field that would allow me to indulge my appetite for a good story. When I was offered a scholarship at the University of North Carolina, I gave away my surfboard, packed up my hatchback, and drove across the country to the inland college town of Chapel Hill.
In North Carolina I missed the ocean, but less than a mile from my new house I discovered a network of running trails that snaked through the woods along a bubbling creek. I ran for miles beneath a dense canopy of leaves, losing myself in the rhythm of my breath the same way I’d lost myself in the motion of the waves. I ran in the early morning, when the woods were nearly deserted except for a tall man, his gray hair cut close to his head, who lept down the trail like a jackrabbit on long, toned legs. When our paths crossed, he swerved off the trail to let me pass and flashed a broad smile. I began to look for him, to listen for the distinct sound of his gait on the path. We became friendly, and sometimes he switched directions and ran with me for a few miles.
His name was Ismail, and he was from Libya. He lived in an attic apartment at the edge of the woods, and his bedroom window overlooked a vegetable garden that produced pungent basil and fat tomatoes. In the spring fragrant puffs of pink peonies exploded like popcorn from hard green kernels buried among his bushes. He waded knee-deep into the flowers with a pair of scissors, bending slender stalks gently toward him, and carefully selected three blooms, which he arranged on his kitchen counter in a glass bottle. He had a passion for music and a vast record and CD collection — blues, country, rock, the traditional music of his homeland — but he loved silence just as much. I spent the night with him, and we sipped steaming mugs of coffee together in the morning and watched the sunlight dance over his oak floor. A new stillness settled over me whenever he was nearby. He was like a deep pool into which I dove without a second thought, not realizing how thirsty I had been for this intimacy.
Not long after Ismail and I started dating, I stood in the bathroom of his apartment, staring in disbelief as a thin pink line appeared on my pregnancy test like a fault line in the ground beneath my feet. I vaguely recalled having missed a pill or two the prior month, but I had assumed I was protected nonetheless. How could I have been so cavalier about the risk of pregnancy, after having witnessed the consequences of such behavior over and over again? My legs folded beneath me, and I sat down hard on the cold tile floor.
Ismail was at work. To pass the time until he got home, I did several loads of laundry at the laundromat, which was empty except for a slow-moving woman in stained sweat pants and her two children. Her toddler careened around the room, screeching and banging the dryer doors closed as hard as he could. The baby sat on his mother’s lap and stared at me, drool running in rivulets down his chin and into the fat creases along his neck. A green line of snot snaked slowly from his nostrils to his mouth while his mother stared at the linoleum floor without blinking.
That evening I told Ismail I was pregnant. He sat down on his couch and cried — but whether from elation or dismay I couldn’t tell. I sat next to him and awkwardly rubbed his arm. I did not know what to do with a crying man. Later we sat out on his back steps, watching the darkness overtake the woods. He seemed both excited and wary, and he studied my face for clues about where I stood, communicating mostly through physical gestures: stroking my back, squeezing my fingers just hard enough for me to feel his strength, but not hard enough to make me feel constrained. He brewed me some tea, and together we watched the steam rise from the cup and disappear into the blue-black sky.
I’d always imagined I would have a child one day — after I’d been married for years and my young, successful husband and I had grown tired of traveling, hosting dinner parties for our smart and stylish friends, and spending lazy weekends together in bed. I’d have an established career and a home office where I’d compose thoughtful essays while my parents and in-laws, who lived nearby, baby-sat our child.
I discovered the following quote from W.H. Auden and copied it into my journal: “We would rather be ruined than changed. We would rather die in our dread than climb the cross of the moment and let our illusions die.”
In the days that followed, I weighed the possibilities over and over. I’d just been awarded a fellowship to work abroad the following year as a broadcast journalist. Terminating the pregnancy would mean I could maintain my independence, travel the world, and pursue an exciting career. Having a baby would mean trading this prestigious opportunity for women’s most ancient work: bearing a child. I’d be pregnant and unemployed, far from family, and possibly a single mother. If Ismail and I stayed together, I’d be raising a child with a man who was fifteen years older than I was, whose small apartment was pungent with strange spices, who spoke so passionately that I sometimes felt he was yelling.
My formerly carefree relationship with Ismail felt suddenly heavy, weighed down by the decision before us. We continued to run along the dirt trails together in the mornings. One day we wove in and out of a dense thicket of scrub pines, falling into single file where the path narrowed, then jogging shoulder to shoulder where it widened again. Without warning, Ismail broke his gait and turned to face me.
“What exactly are you looking for in this life?” he asked, struggling to catch his breath, his eyes searching mine. “Love? Freedom? Family? Adventure?” He raised his voice and swept his arms toward me, palms upward, as if balancing my fragile future in his outstretched hands. “Don’t you see? It’s all here in front of you. Right here. Right now.”
I stared at him. Beads of sweat trickled from his hairline, past the deep wrinkles that framed his intense, nearly black eyes. His threadbare cotton T-shirt, stained dark with moisture, drooped from his shoulders. All around us scrub pines stretched toward the light, their brown trunks as scrawny as children’s arms. The thick, damp air clung to me. In the distance I heard the sound of traffic. This is not how my life was supposed to be, I thought.
That thin pink line was like a tightrope stretched taut between our past and our future. Over the next few weeks Ismail and I teetered precariously across it, stepping gingerly so as not to upset one another’s balance; we had such a long way to fall. I dozed off on the couch in the middle of the day and had frantic dreams about finding crying babies everywhere — in my backpack, at the bottom of a laundry hamper, on the floor of my car. A strange heat deep in my middle woke me during the night, and I could fall back to sleep only with my belly pressed hard against Ismail’s back, the tops of my feet against his soles. Strange new sensations coursed through my body. My stomach turned at the stench of cooked fish, which hung in the air like a curse for days after we’d eaten it. I recoiled from the trace odor of mold woven into Ismail’s sweaters, the thin, acrid smell of decay on his breath. I cried and wondered how I could possibly bring a baby into this rotting world — and then I wondered how I could possibly do anything but that.
Ismail told me that in the North African village where he had been raised, marriage would have been our only option, and that men and women had been killed for the offense of conceiving a child outside of wedlock. His casual conversation was peppered with references to Allah: “God willing,” the weather would improve. “Thanks to God,” he had gotten over a cold. But he held me squarely by the shoulders, looked into my eyes, and told me he would accept whatever choice I made — and I believed him, even though we had been dating for less time than it would take to carry this pregnancy to term.
I knew well what a woman’s options were in California, but I hadn’t yet familiarized myself with the medical resources in North Carolina. To learn more, I went to a local clinic, where I sat in a small office with a young woman who popped her gum as she took my medical history. When she left the room to administer my pregnancy test, I could hear her giggling and chatting with her co-workers about her weekend. She returned to the tiny room, her face sober. She outlined my choices and asked me what I wanted to do.
It seemed like such a simple question. On the one hand, I wanted to pursue the life I had imagined for myself. But I couldn’t figure out how to measure the value of my goals against the value of this pregnancy. Was an unplanned pregnancy any less precious, mysterious, or promising than a carefully planned one? For the first time I was beginning to wonder whether the pursuit of my own desires was the best strategy in life.
I’d spent so much time thinking about my future, but now I saw that all I had was this fleeting and imperfect moment: This queasiness. These full, tender breasts. This young woman across from me, with her flawless skin and bright expression. This gentle man in my life, with his musical accent, his warm hands, his tiny apartment. I’d imagined myself as autonomous, but even that was an illusion: Ismail was lodged in my heart as surely as this new life was lodged in my womb, and I would be able to extract myself from these relationships only by what felt like an act of destruction.
The young woman across from me circled phone numbers on color-coded information sheets, tapped them into a tidy stack, and handed them to me. I was grateful for all the alternatives available, and for the fact that this choice was mine alone to make. But I did not feel “empowered.” Instead I felt brought to my knees by this burden. I knew that whatever path I chose would lead me first to grief — for the loss of the life I’d planned, or for the loss of the life I carried — and that I would have to live with this decision for the rest of my life. Through feminism I’d discovered strength and ambition, but I knew little about the subtler rewards of acceptance and surrender.
Alone in that anonymous office, I felt a rush of sympathy for the women I had met in the clinic where I’d worked: the mother who had chosen to end her pregnancy; the young girl who had chosen to continue hers. I understood that sometimes love has the power to drag us under, and that there are also times when we have to dive headlong into our fears in order to find our joy. I understood that whatever choice these women made — whatever choice I made — a life was saved and a life was lost.
Soon after that, a strange thing happened: my exhausted, racing mind paused in its endless deliberations, and I stumbled upon a moment of clarity. It was late in the afternoon, and I was sitting in Ismail’s apartment crying. His eyes glistened as he leaned in toward me from across the table, and in his unwavering gaze I saw a love as vast as an ocean. I could see that it was big enough to contain my fears and regrets, big enough to embrace whatever choice I made. In the silence that stretched out between us, I felt my fears begin to recede, and in their absence I recognized different emotions: gratitude for this man and awe for this mysterious new life entwined with mine. Though it would seem crazy to abandon the future I had planned for such a small moment, it would somehow be enough to lead me into a future I’d never intended or even knew how much I wanted.