In the fall of 1967, a schlemiel named Don Bessemer from Short Pump, Virginia, got me pregnant. Well, okay, I got myself pregnant with his assistance. I fell for this superficial clod one rainy October afternoon when we were the only two patrons in a hole-in-the-wall called Café Ludovico off Astor Place. The place was so narrow there was only one row of tiny square café tables against one wall. I sat facing the entrance. He stepped in out of the deluge with his umbrella dripping and slid into the next table facing the rear, toward the espresso machine and me.
After the initial eyeballing, we both pretended to read our books. I kept on copping glances at him over my Fundamentals of Stage Lighting (deadly boring). He was scoping me out, too, over Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me. So when our gazes eventually locked and I was flustered, I tossed out a lame quip:
“Depressing, huh?” I said.
“Huh?” was all he said back, drilling those penetrating, dark, slightly hooded eyes into me.
“Your book,” I explained. “Down so long….”
“No, it’s funny,” he said, deadpan. “You NYU?” he asked.
“Oh…. Sophomore. Theater.”
“They actually teach that?”
“They actually do.” I held up my book. “You?”
“Second year MA, English lit.”
“Hey, that’s original. You’ve got the turtleneck sweater and everything.”
He ignored the crack.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
“Erica. They call me Pooh.”
“Pooh? What kind of name is that?”
“Like in Winnie the.”
“Winnie the what?”
“Yeah?” he said. “Remind me what that is.”
“It’s a children’s book. About a teddy bear.”
“Oh, okay. Yeah. Sure.”
“And you’re going for a masters in English?”
He paused to light a cigarette. On his first drag the smoke boiled out of his nostrils like he was a dragon in the Chinese New Year parade. It did something to me, sorry to say. But he ducked my snotty question.
“Pooh?” he asked. “Who calls you that?”
“My friends. Originally, my Dad.”
“You a daddy’s girl?”
I had to think about that a moment.
“I guess I am, kind of.”
I’ll spare you the details about how we went to a dive called Jade Dragon on West 4th Street, and drank scorpion cocktails with the Lo Mein, and then ended up at his crummy apartment, which happened to be three floors above, where the deed went down. He was a dreamboat with no passenger aboard, an empty vessel, but he pretended to want to be my boyfriend for two more nights, and me vice-versa his girlfriend, until I realized what a hopeless clod he really was. He was writing his thesis on the novels of an obscure Carolinian named Braxton Craven, author of the forgotten gem Naomi Wise, or the Victim (1865), and he drank his red wine on the rocks, and the only other time we went out for a meal together (Jade Dragon again, for convenience post-sex) he made me kick in for half the check. I missed my pill the day of our initial encounter, as I learned the next morning when I studied the little cardboard dispenser wheel with each pill keyed to the day of the month. It was a fairly new routine for me, taking the pill, and wouldn’t you know I fucked it up right from the start.
1967 was a good year to not watch the news, if you could help it. There was war around the world: Israel against Egypt, the bloodbath in Biafra, Vietnam of course, race riots in Detroit, Cleveland, Buffalo, Newark, Milwaukee, Memphis. The Red Guards were going nuts in China. Maybe the only good thing was that the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band had come out that summer and they were still playing it everywhere, even Muzak versions in the NYU elevators. As it happened, I was not watching much news because a few days after meeting Don “Dreamboat” Bessemer, I got cast in a small role, Mrs. Squeamish, in a Restoration comedy called The Country Wife, by William Wycherley, the big fall main stage production. Just getting onstage in a theater department as large as NYU’s was considered a big deal for a sophomore. Only the director, a young hotshot professor named Arnie Dremling, decided to do the play as a hippie musical à la Hair, the hippie musical that had just opened a few blocks away at Joseph Papp’s new Public Theater that same month. Arnie Dremling: another original mind.
I’m sorry to say our version of The Country Wife was a howling embarrassment. We knew it after the first week. The rock and roll band that Dremling recruited could barely play their instruments. The songs (also by Dremling) were asinine and tuneless. The hippie costumes were idiotic. The set, which was supposed to represent Greenwich Village, looked like the nightmare cityscape from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. And there was a nude scene where three of us had to be topless for about thirty seconds singing one of Dremling’s stupid songs — because we were competing with Hair for audacity, you see. Uccchhh! Mortifying. During the month-long rehearsals, everybody in the cast was bummed, grouchy, desperate to not be seen in this fiasco. And it was against this backdrop that I learned I was pregnant.
As it happened, I had Don Bessemer’s phone number, but he was never home — or if he was, he didn’t answer — and this was years before the answering machine existed, so I couldn’t leave him a message. I went to his crummy building three times and left notes taped next to his buzzer in the vestibule, with the fry-o-later fumes from the Jade Dragon gagging me, but he didn’t call, or contact me, or come to look for me at the college theater where I told him we were rehearsing, so I had to give up on the fantasy that he would take any responsibility for the deed. Not that I would have asked him to be a father, because also frankly, I’m sorry to say, I considered carrying the baby to term for maybe two minutes. You don’t make a choice like that without paying a price in your heart sooner or later. Let’s just say I was old enough to know that I was too immature to take care of a baby on my own. But I didn’t have the money for an abortion, either.
My room-mate in Sieff Hall, Carol Keating (Art History major), was a Catholic who actually went to mass every Sunday, so I couldn’t talk to her about it. I discreetly asked around a few people in the theater department and one particular sympathetic young woman on the dance faculty — let’s call her Lynn — who was choreographing our musical numbers for The Country Wife, gave me the name and address of a doctor who would do the procedure. She had gone to him the previous year. She warned me to “expect the unexpected,”and wouldn’t elaborate, because, she said, she didn’t want to discourage me, but said he was a good guy and capable. She instructed me to drop a coded message with the receptionist that I was there to inquire about “special services.” So, one blustery November day, I went to the address uptown on East 60th Street that Lynn gave me to see Dr. Jonas Nitkin. The place, in the shadow of the Queensboro Bridge, turned out to be a cat hospital.
It was unexpected, all right, but still I went in and dropped the code words on the woman behind the front desk as I was told to. She nodded knowingly and asked me to take a seat. Four other people waited there with their poor, sick cats. One by one, when called, they took their animals through one particular door on the right side of the room. Then, when they were all done, I was escorted by the receptionist through another door on the left side. Dr. Nitkin was seated there behind his desk in a comfortable wood-paneled office with lots of books. He reminded me of my father, in his late forties, a mild, intelligent face, a full head of steel-gray hair, tortoiseshell glasses, white lab coat open at the throat with a flag of red paisley tie showing. He sat with his manicured fingertips pressed together. For a painfully long moment, it seemed, we just stared across the desk at each other.
“You understand this is a confidential service,” he finally said.
“I do,” I said and told him who sent me.
“Do you have a lab report or just miss your monthlies?”
I dug into my shoulder bag and gave the papers to him. He looked them over. This was back in the days before at-home pregnancy tests. Lynn the choreographer had also directed me to a clinic off Sheridan Square for the test. I wanted to avoid the university health service, in case they tattled on you to your parents.
“Well, it tells the story, doesn’t it?” Nitkin remarked, scanning the pages over his glasses.
I made a dumb, helpless face. He seemed to collect his thoughts for a moment.
“I know this is a hard thing for any woman.”
“Really?” I said. “How would you know?” I was a nervous wreck, of course. But he was remarkably patient.
“I see a lot of women in here,” he said gently.
“Of course. I’m sorry.”
“The question is: are you sure want to go through with this?”
“Because if you’re not sure, I’m not comfortable with it.”
He appeared to measure me visually. “All right,” he finally said.
“Where do you actually do it?” I asked.
“Come,” he said, and stood up. I followed. He opened another door between sets of bookshelves and threw the light switch. It was a small room with white tiled walls and an OB-GYN table at center, along with surgical lamps, sinks, and other equipment. It was immaculate and smelled of antiseptic cleaner.
“Does it hurt?” I asked. Just looking at all the stuff was frightening. For some reason, the Nazis came to mind: Dr. Mengale. My own morbid thought shocked me.
“We give you enough sedation to be comfortable and relaxed,” he said. “And some numbing medication internally. You’re not very far along. The placenta hasn’t developed. There’s not much… material… to get out. Afterwards you’ll have cramps and some bleeding, like a heavy menstrual period. I’ll give you something for that and a course of antibiotic. Also some heavy flow napkins to get you home, but you might lay in extra supplies.”
“Are these human drugs or animal drugs?”
He switched off the lights and returned to his desk. I followed again.
“They’re just chemicals that have certain properties,” he said evenly. “Only the dosages are different.”
I apologized for my snotty question.
“I understand that you’re upset. But I must ask you again if you really want to do this.”
“Yes,” I said. “I do. Absolutely.”
“Sit down,” he said. I did. “You’ll bring three hundred dollars to the appointment. No checks or money orders.”
That took the starch out of me. I don’t know why. I knew it was going to cost a lot. I guess just hearing the number got to me.”
“Wow,” I said. “I just paid thirty bucks for the test.”
“You’re paying for expertise, safety, and cleanliness.”
“I understand. I’ll bring the money.”
“Maybe you should consider going on the new medication that prevents pregnancy.”
“The pill? I’m on it.”
“You have to take it every day, as directed.”
“Yeah. I missed one.”
“Unfortunately, that’s all it takes.”
“I could shoot myself.”
“That won’t be necessary. You make an appointment with Mrs. Finkel out there. Don’t eat anything from midnight before the day of. Expect to be here about three hours in all.”
“It takes three hours?”
“No, twenty minutes. But you’ll have an oral sedative an hour before and you’ll rest here for an hour afterward.” He touched his fingertips together again. It prompted me to think I was in good hands. “Oh, one other thing: don’t bring anyone with you, including your boyfriend.”
“Don’t worry about him,” I said with a rueful laugh. “We never even got to that stage.”
“Kids these days,” Nitkin said and stood up and cracked a kind of weary half-smile. “Well, I have to get back to my… other patients.”