My best friend Daleen and I were born in the same hospital five days apart. When people ask how Daleen and I met, I like to say exactly this: “We were born in the same hospital five days apart.” It’s a standard party trick, something I’ve learned to deliver in increasingly pointed ways over the course of our 15-year friendship, a joke whose social-emotional function has never been lost on me. It’s something I wish were true, but isn’t. Something that isn’t, but maybe could be: the story styled and served sideways. Why not?
There are people out there who fumble the joke immediately. These people consider my response, make eye contact, and say, “Wait, no, but really.” These people are not my friends. Friends ask me how I first approached Daleen in the hospital nursery (did I crawl or did I scoot?) and how she responded (did she cry or did she drool?), and for a moment I feel relaxed knowing there are others who wish it were so simple, too.
Having been born five days apart, it’s not uncommon for Daleen and me to structure our birthday season around each other. This is because I love the sturdy escapism that a prolonged birthday celebration provides, and also because we are both still traumatized by the year I forgot Daleen’s 19th birthday in 2007, referred to here in shorthand as T.Y.I.F. (“The Year I Forgot”). I don’t have enough emotional stamina to detail T.Y.I.F. now, but eventually it was nine years later and we had more or less moved on. Daleen and I were both seemingly grown, both with graduate degrees and gym memberships, both renting one-bedroom apartments in Hollywood — only Daleen’s was on the more respectable end. Mine was pushed up against the Metro red line and infested with roaches. Additionally, my apartment came with a sweet, adoring boyfriend I couldn’t convince myself to want to marry, no matter that for seven years he loved me the way he did, with a kind of cherubic grace you just don’t hear about in Hollywood, and no matter how badly I wanted my story to unfurl in clean, white lines on paper.
Such were the frustrated circumstances of my life when I vomited in a Dunkin’ Donuts bathroom and discovered I was pregnant. It was the week before my 28th birthday. The Future! I thought, staring into the putrid, porcelain expanse of the toilet bowl. It wasn’t glamorous, but was it All Right?
I ordered a sausage-egg-and-cheese breakfast sandwich and thought about my one-bedroom apartment next to the subway — the roaches, the leaky gas stove, the anonymous grifter who kept smearing excrement on the sky blue Toyota Prius I inherited from my sister — and decided to schedule an appointment for an abortion as I soon as I could muster the words to tell my boyfriend, who was living temporarily back east for a job. By the time I did tell him, it was my actual birthday — number 28. And in response, he asked whether any part of me felt excited to know I could get pregnant, as if I hadn’t already carried the burden of that knowledge around with me — the messy red-brown muck of it — since I was 11 years old.
I didn’t feel excited. I felt desperate to be alone and terrified to be alone in alternating waves. I didn’t know which was the more honest feeling. I still don’t. But my body felt different in a way that was so apparent it surprised me. I felt hardened, nauseated, and ravenous for sugar all at once. More than anything I wanted to be rid of that feeling, to soften back into my old salty self, which is why I think Daleen and I went forth with our birthday festivities as planned, hosting a house party at a friend’s place a few nights after my abortion procedure. Daleen even made a flyer and two cakes. I wore a black velvet mini-dress and, because I was still bleeding, a giant menstrual pad, which I held securely in place with a pair of Spanx. That night I didn’t think much about my boyfriend, or even the baby that could have been. Instead I got drunk, because it was a party. I ordered a pizza. I entertained a group serenade of “Happy Birthday,” I licked frosting off my fingers, and I flirted with a crush because I was already falling out of love with the story I’d written about myself, or the one that had been written for me.
When my Northern California Catholic school needed a hip way to talk to freshmen about the consequences of abortion, they played us “Brick” by Ben Folds Five. It was 2002, and despite my unwavering understanding (even at 14) of my right to choose, I was young enough then for my pathologies to still be forming. For the next 15 or so years, Ben Folds’ account of emotional collapse following his high school girlfriend’s abortion at “6 a.m., day after Christmas” instilled in me a belief in the destructive quality of my own womb, which was then deep in the throes of female puberty. Perhaps as a result of this education, as a teen I sought control over the disorder I sensed in my body. I tweezed, flat-ironed, stuffed my chest into push-up bras, and eventually I went on the Pill, if only to protect myself from being drowned in watery emotion — a heavy, sunken brick at the bottom of the San Francisco Bay.
Following its release on their Whatever and Ever Amen album in 1997, “Brick” became the alternative rock band’s biggest hit and gained enough mainstream radio play that early fans accused Ben Folds Five of selling out. Despite its controversial subject matter, the reason behind the song’s widespread appeal can be understood in its lonesome lyrics and moody piano arpeggio, which suggest that — politics aside — abortion is sad for everyone. Especially Ben Folds.
Abortion does feel sad for some women, and that’s OK. But “Brick” isn’t about the experience of some women, or even one woman. Pay no attention to the piano gimmick and all that remains of “Brick” is a man imagining a woman drowning both herself and those around her with the weightiness of her #FemaleProblems. Ultimately, “Brick” is a song about how abortion made Ben Folds feel about Ben Folds, which, if for some reason you need to know, is “numb” and “alone,” despite his girlfriend being the one actually having the experience.
My adult self wonders how Ben’s girlfriend would have painted her story differently. Would she really think to include the detail of her boyfriend selling back his Christmas gifts on the same day as her abortion? Would she tell us what she ate afterward? (I ate a cheesesteak and I want to know.) Which TV shows would she recommend binge-watching to ignore all the bleeding? If she imagined herself a brick, would she instead be the kind thrown up against a windowpane?
I remember discussing the possibility of an unexpected pregnancy with another friend, Emma, after we both finished graduate school and faced the uncertain future of the rest of our lives as writers who also happen to be women.
“Would you have an abortion?” I asked her. “At this point?”
Emma, who was born in east London and raised in Essex — more accustomed to the grit of life than me — thought she wouldn’t, that somehow she’d learn to endure motherhood on a diet of rice and moldy vegetables, like her mother before her, and her mother’s mother before that. I said I’d opt for the abortion, but that I’d probably develop a drinking problem from the resulting pain and distress. In response, Emma laughed the sheepish way friends do when they agree with you but know they shouldn’t. We both wanted a third option, only we didn’t realize what that option could be yet.
It seems important to note that while enrolled in the same Catholic school where I was encouraged to consider my uterus as one might, say, an albatross, I was also required to read Hamlet, in which the O.G. Damsel in Distress — the hapless and inconsolable Ophelia — drowns in a brook following the news of her father’s death. The scene was depicted by artist John Everett Millais in a now-iconic painting that hangs in Tate Britain. In the image Ophelia’s corpse is nearly submerged in murky blue water, as if her life has been extinguished by her own tears. Tied up in these narratives of women drowning is an implicit understanding of their physical and emotional conditions as less solid than their sturdier male counterparts. By comparison, women are soft, squishy, encased in liquid, or containing too much of it. “The female body is a leaky body,” writes my friend Emma in her essay “A History of Interiors.” Of course, the monthly fact of the female reproductive cycle adds yet another sodden layer. (Emma again: “The red mystery of woman: a feminine stigmata, foul and lubricious.”)
It’s not typical for me to swoon over conventionally attractive people. My type is more “90% attractive, but with something kind of ugly about them,” which is why I’ve dated a lot of extroverted cis men in the past. “Max” (which isn’t his real name) was a different kind of crush, though. Max was an LA kind of crush, which is to say he seemed imaginary, the kind of crush meant to distract from a dying relationship. Not only was our flirtation contained almost entirely to the digital sphere (Max liked all my Instagram selfies in the summer of 2016), but the easy naturalness of Max’s movie-star anatomy felt utterly impossible to me, by which I mean a woman from elsewhere, with no familial ties to Hollywood at all.
I had arrived in LA a misfit Bay Area exile, raised in some shapeless tech town hours and hours up I-5, while Max had a Movie Family. You could tell by the way he never mentioned his parents unless you asked him something direct, and even then Max never named names. That’s how you know who grew up with Hollywood and who didn’t. There’s a calculated casualness to the locals there, whereas I tried to tell anyone who would listen about that one time in college when child star Haley Joel Osment bought Daleen a pepperoni pizza and I happened to be there, too.
Close friends joke about my peculiar lack of chill, about the spastic way I carry my limbs and all my random bouts of nausea in public. I never see myself coming, which is why I felt surprised when, standing on the balcony the night of my birthday party, I swiveled around to flirt with Max and broke a fist-sized string light bulb with the sway of my right hip alone.
“Hips don’t lie,” Max said.
Indeed. I scraped shards of glass away with the side of my sneaker and excused myself to the bathroom. When I returned, I found Max sitting downstairs and flopped next to him on the couch. A beat passed while I crossed my legs, pursed my lips, and considered what to say next, only Max figured it out first:
“Is that blood?”
He directed his gaze toward the fleshy inside of my left knee, where a string of my uterine lining had decided to invite itself to the party. I looked down at myself then too, feeling the sudden, hot pressure of addressing the condition of my uterus for a person who did not, in fact, have one. Max himself seemed perplexed by the source of my blood, asking for a first and second time whether I’d been cut by the broken glass on the balcony, and for a moment I considered what it would feel like to tell Max the truth about my abortion and the possibility of bleeding without being wounded. Instead I said:
In her video work “Untitled (Blood Sign #1)” (1974), the late Cuban-American artist Ana Mendieta scoops handfuls of animal blood from a tray and onto a white wall. After tracing the outline of a doorway around herself, Mendieta scrawls a series of words in sharp, swift movements. “There is a devil inside me,” read the words inside the bloody doorway. The video then fades to black.
I find I am often more interested in the artist behind the work than in the work itself. In this case, Ana Mendieta is nearly as famous for her death as for her provocative “earth body” art of the 1970s and ’80s, which typically featured blood, dirt, hair, ritual, burial, and the artist’s nude form. In September 1985, Mendieta was a rising art star when, at the age of 36, she fell from the 34th floor of the Greenwich Village apartment building where she lived with her husband of just nine months, the minimalist sculptor Carl Andre. Andre was present at the time of his wife’s death, reporting to 911 dispatchers that the two had quarreled about Andre’s higher level of prominence in the art world, after which she “went out the window” and died.
Tried for murder in the second degree, Andre was acquitted on all charges, ruling Mendieta’s death an accident or suicide by default.
After immigrating to the US as an orphan in exile from her native Cuba, Mendieta studied art at the University of Iowa, where she established herself as a fiercely ambitious, vital force who was as engaged as she was enraged with the male-dominated art world — “a devil inside her.” When painting and sculpting proved inadequate mediums to communicate her radicalism, Mendieta sought to imbue her work with a greater sense of power and magic and transitioned into experimental performance, which she documented through photography and video. In “Untitled (Facial Hair Transplants)” (1972), a male friend shaves hair off his face as Mendieta applies the hair to her own. In “Bird Transformation” (1972), Mendieta transforms the body of a woman into a fowl by covering it in white feathers and blood. In “Untitled (Self-Portrait with Blood)” (1973), she stares directly at the camera while blood dribbles from her forehead and down her nose, into her mouth. When asked by a district attorney whether she believed it possible that Mendieta could have killed herself, friend and fellow activist Lucy Lippard answered resolutely: “No.” She had too much life inside her.
The inverse of a suicidal woman is a homicidal woman: a monstrous woman, a woman of energy and intensity in excess, a powerful woman covered in thick, hot red blood. It’s clear to me now that Mendieta was born red regardless of the materials she used in her artwork. For her crime was one of multivalence, of contradiction. In her ambition and in her husband Mendieta was drawn to what she was most repelled by. She was herself, as changeable as she was in conversation with the world around her: a red woman — as much as Ophelia is a blue woman and the girlfriend from “Brick” is a blue woman, by which I mean solitary and tragic, without faculty enough to swim themselves to shore.
In Millais’s painting of Ophelia, her palms are held open and raised slightly above water at chest level, as if to suggest stigmata — only there is no blood. Ophelia’s hands have been wiped clean.
“What is the relationship between physical states, bodily wastes (even if metaphoric ones) and the horrific?” asks scholar Barbara Creed in The Monstrous-Feminine.
In drowning women we wash the red parts away.
For a long time after my abortion, my blood became a problem. For six months I didn’t bleed at all, my period mysteriously absented, just like the words I searched for to explain what had happened, how I was trying to understand it. Then, for a month straight, I bled in public. It didn’t matter how many layers I wore to protect myself against the seepage. My blood was angry, spiteful. I bled in Mexican restaurants and in the freezer aisle. I bled down the maddening, circular hallways at the university where I worked. I bled at the bottom of the Verdugo foothills, where I dripped onto the hardwood floor of my new home in Glendale, where there was no more boyfriend and no more roaches, only sometimes crickets in the kitchen sink in the morning. I bled through my jeans, once, when Emma made me laugh too hard. We were drinking wine on the sofa and Emma scrubbed the stain out of the couch cushion while I threw my jeans into the wash. I bled so much I thought I might be hemorrhaging and called my doctor, who told me the bleeding was rare but not abnormal. I started to feel light-headed, so Daleen dragged me out for steak at El Coyote, where my Diva Cup spilled out onto the floor of the women’s bathroom — red. When I stood from our table after dinner, the napkin I’d been sitting on was soaked red, too. Daleen threw all that red under the table and tipped when we left. It was all anyone could do. ●