Before Roe

By Debby Bloch

Still on my back. Legs spread. Feet held in metal stirrups. I say to Dr. Dubrovnick, whose face peers at me from between my knees, “I can’t go through with this.”

“Debby,” he answers, “it’s against the law.”

“Please, please. What if this is going to drive me insane?” I feel as if I might indeed go insane.

“There’s nothing I can do but make sure you’re healthy, whether you continue your pregnancy or whatever you decide or do—if you go somewhere else,” Dubrovnick says.

“Where else can I go?” I feel a moment of hope. Maybe he’s hinting at some solution he will reveal only if I ask the right question. After all, he’s been my OB/GYN for years. He’s delivered both my children, been sympathetic about my divorce. I pull my feet from the stirrups and sit up.

He stands and smooths non-existent creases from his long white coat. “Debby, not only can’t I refer you to anyone else, I really don’t even know anyone else.” Dubrovnick pats me on the shoulder.

The disgrace of it all. And the kids. My ex-husband-to-be has already threatened to get custody. If only the divorce were final… If I have this baby, Bruce and Seth are old enough to figure out that something is wrong and young enough to be traumatized by what they figure out.

“My ex will take the children, and the children will find out about me. I can’t lose my children.” Saying aloud what I’ve been thinking brings on the sobs that I’ve suppressed. “What should I do? You’ve got to help me.”

Dubrovnick is silent.

“What if this happened to someone in your family, someone you love?” I ask him.

“I’m afraid I would be in the same position you are.”

I can’t stop crying. This is no ploy for sympathy although if sympathy gets me a way out, I’ll gladly take it.

“Debby, I wish I could help you. My hands are tied on this. You’ll have to find your own way. I know, I know.” With each “I know” Dubrovnick pats my shoulder. “Take your time.” He hands me some tissues. “Don’t leave until you feel ready.” And just like that, he’s gone.

For a certain generation of adults, those were the glory years of sexual freedom, the years after the FDA approved The Pill and before the shock wave of HIV/AIDS hit the world. But it didn’t begin that way for me.

It’s 1968, I live with my two kids in a two-story house, on a quiet street, in a middle-class neighborhood in Queens, I’m a high school English teacher. My ex has a good job in real estate. That’s how it’s supposed to be except for one thing. The “marriage-until-death-do-us-part” part has ended in a bitter separation, soon to be a divorce.

But the divorce is the least of my problems. I feel a knot grow in my stomach, a knot with no beginning and no bitter end, no loose string that can help untangle it. It’s the worst possible moment in my life to be pregnant. How did I get myself into this fix? Joel. Joel isn’t even someone I care about.

This is the punishment my mother warned me about all my life. This pregnancy—this punishment—comes directly from her oldest admonitions. After all, like all good Jewish girls raised in the fifties, I was inculcated with the notion that any excess, any satisfaction of desire, could lead to disaster. Eat an éclair, get ptomaine poisoning and die. Swim before summer’s official start—July fourth—get pneumonia and die. Stay out after eleven in the evening, meet a sex maniac, be raped and die. My mother was right. I strayed, I slept with—no, I want to be honest, I fucked—a lot of men, and now I was paying. I laughed at my mother when I was a kid, but now … But now—sex—I wasn’t doing anything different from everyone else I knew. Like them, I supported the Civil Rights Movement. Marched against the war in Vietnam. Sure—make love, not war. Look where it got me.

It began simply enough when Renée and I decided to go to a club not far from where we both lived. We laughed as we left my kids with the babysitter. Two high school teachers out for a big night. In Queens. But it was always fun to go with Renée. Not only were we confidantes since what felt like our simultaneous divorces, but our complementary appearances acted like magnets. Renée had dark hair and a lean, fashionable figure, while I was somewhat rounder with strawberry blonde hair and the fair skin of a natural redhead. Maybe we’d meet someone, maybe hang out, have a drink or two.

In the club, there was a long bar with a red leather edge, a few small tables with black, reflective tops and, around the tables, small metal chairs with round red leather seats. All empty. There were probably around thirty, forty people leaning on the bar but facing into the room, standing around, walking around the room, eying each other. It was too early in the evening for people to have paired off.

There was a combo playing a mix of popular songs of the past couple of years, “Light My Fire,” “Cherish,” “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You.” That’s the beginning. The beginning I wish I could erase. The moment when I realized the drummer was looking at me, smiling. When he saw I noticed him, he raised one stick and with the other hand brushed the cymbals— swoosh, swoosh, schwing. A kind of musical pick-up line. I smiled back and made some sort of flirty movement with my hair.

I don’t remember anything we said. Of course I do remember leaving the bar with Joel and going to his apartment nearby, a small apartment on the second floor of a brick building. As the elevator door opened, I smelled the familiar apartment-house-hall blend of cooked onions and brewed coffee. His door had the usual two locks, one deadbolt supplied by the building and one lock he had installed, the kind that couldn’t be jimmied or opened with a master key. The all-purpose living/eating room was just like the ones I’d seen in other single men’s apartments—a semi-broken-down sofa, probably salvaged from his marriage or his mother, two chrome and vinyl chairs at a small, round Formica table with the remnants of supper, or lunch, or the previous night’s meal. He led me into the bedroom. A double mattress and box spring sat on the floor. Joel hurriedly smoothed out the sheets and blanket.

Talk about being blind. I’d never used a diaphragm in my marriage and I don’t know why I didn’t figure out I needed one now. The Pill had been on the market for a while, but even that news passed me by. I expected him to use a condom, but he said, “I don’t like how condoms feel. Don’t worry, I’ll pull out.”

By the time he said, “I’ll pull out,” I was really hot. I wanted him at least as much as he wanted me. After that year of rejection, the year in which my marriage fell apart, being wanted was all the aphrodisiac I needed. Joel was cute. Maybe “cute” made him seem less threatening. He was about five foot eight—a good difference from my five feet three inches—slender, but with well-developed arm muscles. Probably the drumming.

Joel was in no hurry to get to the ending. He sucked on my fingers. That was an incredibly sexy feeling. He was a good kisser, as we said in high school. Lingering. Slow. Lingering and slow all over my body. And then he entered, and he did pull out. But clearly not soon enough.

A few weeks later, I felt my breasts grow tender. My nipples swelled and the pressure of my bra made them hurt. Then I realized that more than a month had gone by without my period.

I am pregnant and I am desperate, desperate in the true sense of the word, without hope. I ask my closest friends if they know of anyone, a person, a hospital, anywhere in the country, where I can go to terminate the pregnancy. Nothing. I ask my friends to ask their friends, but everyone knows pretty much the same people. None of those people are of any use. And asking Joel for help is out of the question. I saw him only once after that night. We met for coffee and realized that one night together had been enough for both of us. I’m not even sure I can remember how to find him. Besides I don’t want anything from him. The brief romance, if you could call it that, is over, dead, but what we started together is not.

I think of a friend in New Jersey, Betty, a friend I haven’t seen since a year or two after college. Maybe Betty or her lawyer husband will know the right kind of doctor. Or other kind of person. It’s not that I think Betty is any different from my current friends, but we New Yorkers always think of New Jersey as somewhat disreputable, the homeland of gangsters. I imagine the small cities and placid suburbs of Jersey as a kind of terra incognita. As it turns out, Betty does remember a hospital in Newark that is supposed to cater to “female problems,” but when I call information for the hospital number, it’s disconnected.

Then, unexpectedly, Eileen, a teacher in the math department at school, comes up to me in the cafeteria.

She sits down next to me and speaks so softly I can barely hear her. “I understand you have a problem. I might be able to help you. Can you meet me after school? I’m parked right outside, a black Ford Mustang.”

“Sure,” I say. Eileen isn’t even a friend, just another teacher in the huge high school of thirty-five hundred kids. I’m surprised that Eileen has even heard about me. I’m surprised that there’s a chance that Eileen could be the one to help me. I’m even surprised that Eileen has a Mustang, a car for a younger person.

“I hear you have a problem, not a school problem,” Eileen begins once we’re in her car.

“Yes, I do.” I don’t care how Eileen learned about the pregnancy.

“Do you want some advice?”

My scalp gets tight. I feel the individual hairs rise. The last thing I need is some do-gooder telling me what to do. I say nothing, just nod.

“I have some experience with this problem—not my own—but someone very close to me. You’ll understand why I don’t want to say who.”

I nod again.

“Can you get your hands on some money? You’ll need twelve hundred dollars in cash plus money for airfare, a hotel room for a few nights, food, taxis,” Eileen says.

“Airfare to where?” I ask.

“San Juan.”

“As in Puerto Rico?”


“I can get the money together.” It’s a lot of money, but I figure I can somehow make it work with a combination of a small savings account and credit cards. “Can you give me the name or address there?” I begin to reach into my bag for a pen.

“You won’t need a pen. You’ll remember the details I’m going to tell you. When you get to San Juan, get a taxi at the airport. Tell the driver you want a ‘guesthouse’ and a ‘woman’s doctor.’”

“I don’t speak Spanish.”

“You don’t need Spanish. Believe me, the driver will understand. He’ll take you to a small hotel. It will be a modest guesthouse, nothing more elaborate. Ask him to wait. Register, drop your bag, and get back in the taxi. He’ll be waiting. Then he’ll take you to the place you need and he will tell you the fare is two hundred dollars. Pay him. Twenties are good.”

“How do I know this will work?” I ask.

“You don’t,” Eileen answers.

“How do I know I’ll be in the right taxi?”

“You have to hope that you are. I guess you could look for a different taxi if the driver doesn’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Will the person, you know—I mean not the driver, the other person—be a doctor or at least a nurse?” I ask.

“I don’t know,” Eileen answers.

“Will it be a clean place?”

“I don’t know.”

“I could be—be killed.” Immediately, a word jumps into my mind, flashes before my eyes in bold letters: butchered. Butchered is the word that always appears in the news stories about illegal abortions, and all abortions are illegal.

“You won’t know any of this ahead of time. My heart really goes out to you, my dear, but if this is what you have to do, it’s the only plan I know of.”

“And the person you know, the person who did this?” I ask.

“She’s fine.”

I arrange for my mother to take care of Bruce and Seth, concocting a story about a teachers’ conference: “Teaching Shakespeare” in Stratford, Ontario. I’m sure my mother thinks I’m running off with some man, but I let her believe that.

I don’t think at all about the cells growing within me as a life. Of course I know about embryonic and fetal development from high school bio books. But those are not the pictures that come to mind. Instead I picture lurid headlines in the Daily News as if there is a movie running behind my eyes. “Teacher’s Terror: Back Alley Abortion.” “No Can Do: Knitting Needles Botch Abortion.” “Queens Mother Bleeds Out in Emergency Room.” And the photos. Is that my sheet-draped corpse next to the rather good photo of me at a picnic? Are those my children clinging to their grandmother in the funeral parlor? Is that Renée, covering her face, as she arrives at the cemetery?

I pack a small bag and board the Eastern Airlines flight from JFK airport to San Juan. I leave New York in a fine misty rain. I arrive in Puerto Rico, and I feel the wall of hot, humid, tropical air hit me as soon as I walk out of the plane. I remember that particular smell of tropical air from a family vacation my ex and I took with the kids long before our divorce was on the horizon. I make my way through the airport, following the signs in English and Spanish to the taxi stand. Which is the magic taxi? Which one has the right driver? Should I go to the rank of taxis lined up at the stand or choose one of the people hanging around saying, “Taxi, lady” and grabbing at my small suitcase? I go to the first taxi in line.

I lean forward as the driver puts the car in gear. “I need a guesthouse and a woman’s doctor,” I say.

“Okay,” the driver answers.

I have no idea of what okay means. Does he understand me at all? I can do nothing but wait.

We drive from the airport, through the outskirts of San Juan, into the middle of the city and then to a tree-lined block of medium-sized houses. The driver pulls up in front of a white clapboard house, two stories, green trim. It looks welcoming enough with its covered porch shading a few chairs.

The driver and I get out of the cab, and he takes my bag from my hand. A knock on the door is answered by an ample middle-aged woman, her graying hair held back in a bun. I cannot understand what the driver says to the woman or what she replies, but then the woman turns to me.

“¡Pase! ¡Adelante!” the woman says. “Pase por aquí, por favor,” and she gestures to me to follow her up a flight of stairs.

I take a deep breath and follow her.

“Este es su cuarto.”

As the woman opens the door, I find myself ushered into a pleasant if old-fashioned room. It is painted a pale yellow. There is a wicker chair with a flowered yellow cushion and a double bed with a white chenille spread and a metal headboard painted white.

Aquí está su baño.” The woman points to a door that leads to a private bath. I’m almost ready to breathe a sigh of relief when I realize that this is only the first stop. I follow the woman down the stairs, sign the register, and get back into the cab.

The cab continues through the streets of Puerto Rico. We aren’t in the bustling heart of San Juan. I don’t know where we are. The driver pulls up in front of a narrow gray building and points to the long flight of wooden stairs that leads to its front door.

“Two hundred dollars,” he says.

I pay him and realize that in all our time together—probably close to two hours—he has said exactly four words to me: “okay” and “two hundred dollars.”

I get out of the cab and walk up the stairs. There is no sign as to whether this is an office, a private house, or a deserted building. I look for a bell or buzzer and seeing none, I knock. There is no answer. I try the door, which opens easily. I’m in a small vestibule. The walls of the narrow hall are a dingy beige and the floor is brown, worn linoleum. At the end of the hall, behind a desk, sits a wizened old man.

“¿Si? ¿Que?” And then “Yes?” he asks.

“I need help from a woman’s doctor,” I say.

“What kind of help?” he asks. His Spanish accent does not affect his perfect English and no expression changes his somber face. His face is thin, angular. It seems etched from some ancient stone.

“I’m,” I hesitate, “pregnant, and …” I can’t go on.

“Yes, what is it you want?” Now he sounds impatient.

“I cannot have this baby because …”

He cuts me off. “I know what you want. You want an operation. You want us to take the baby away from inside you. You know that is against the law. You cannot behave like a … like a …” He seems to be searching for some English word. “You cannot do as you wish with a man and then expect someone else to take care of your problems. What you want is a terrible thing. It may help you, but it will destroy another. You will go to hell and that unborn soul will have no chance to find God’s way. You know this is a Catholic country and that what you are asking is against God’s laws too.”

I actually feel the blood leave my face and brain. I think I will faint or throw up, but I don’t know whether the nausea is from my pregnancy, from the Puerto Rican heat, from the dark room, or from the old man’s words. I do not know what to say, anything to stop the conversation. Am I going to be arrested? Here? In Puerto Rico? I want to flee but have that nightmare feeling of being rooted to the spot.

Then the old man continues. “We are taking a chance to help you, a very big chance, with the government and with God. That will be one thousand dollars.”

I reach into my handbag for the envelope filled with twenty-dollar bills. The old man takes it from me with palsied hands. He removes the bills from the envelope and places them in a neat pile on the ancient desk in front of him. Slowly he counts each bill, his hands shaking as he moves the bill from the uncounted pile to the pile he has counted.

“Come back tomorrow morning. Eight o’clock. Take this card. Do not eat anything.”

I don’t know whether I have lost a thousand dollars to a scam artist or whether I have voluntarily given up a thousand dollars meant for someone who might have helped me, because I do know that I will not go back to that old, gray man and his shaking hands. But then, that last sentence he said seems reassuring. “Do not eat anything.” That is the kind of thing a doctor would say. I walk slowly down the steep stairs to the street and look back at the building and then at the card. The card has the address of the building, only that and nothing more. The same cab, same driver wait for me at the curb.

I don’t sleep that night. I play and replay the scene with the old man. At times his shaking hands seem larger than life. At times, it is his voice that I keep hearing. More than once, I throw off the covers and sit up, planning to pack my bag and leave, but each time, I lie back again. When I’m not thinking of the old man, I think of the moment when I met Joel. I keep hoping I can somehow wind the film backward and avoid everything that followed.

The next morning, I step outside the guesthouse to find a taxi waiting. I realize that I don’t need the card. Again the same driver. The cab pulls up in front of the familiar gray building and again I mount the narrow stairs. This time my tentative knock on the door is answered. A woman in a white nurse’s uniform opens the door.

“¡Buen dia!” she says.

When I answer “good morning,” the nurse switches to English. “Are you the young woman who was here yesterday afternoon?”

I nod.

“Come into this room.”

The room into which I’m ushered seems to come from a different world than the narrow, dusty vestibule. It is like the doctors’ dressing rooms with which I’m familiar, white paint, a small bench, a locker with no lock, a curtain.

I follow the nurse’s instructions to undress and put on a gown. I step out of the dressing room, and the nurse is there, waiting. She leads me into what appears to be an operating room. There is a high table with stirrups at one end. Above the table is a large light, the kind that can be maneuvered into its needed position. There is another table, a small one, with instruments on a white towel. I feel reassured, somewhat, but still … This all appears ordinary. Yet it seems bizarre after my encounters with the mysterious taxi driver and the old man.

A white-gowned man strides into the room. “Good morning. I am Doctor Diaz. I think you met my father yesterday. Today, I am going to give you some anesthesia. You won’t feel any pain, and then I will remove the tissue that’s bothering you, the tissue from your uterus. You will sleep a little afterwards, and my nurse will watch you. When you wake up, you will be fine. You may have a little spotting. For that eventuality, we will give you some pads. Are you flying back to the mainland tonight?”

“Tomorrow,” I whisper.

“That’s better,” he says and helps me onto the operating table.

Some time later, I’m not sure exactly how much time, the nurse helps me into the taxi. Back in my hotel room, I pull the white chenille spread off the bed, slide under the covers, and sleep all that afternoon and evening.

I don’t feel anything except very tired until I am on the plane the next day. Then the cramping begins. It is mild at first but then grows stronger. I don’t know how I can make it through the flight. Should I tell the stewardess? What should I tell the stewardess? I can hear the PA announcement: “Is there a doctor aboard the plane? We have a woman bleeding out from an abortion.” No one will come to my help. I don’t even know if I am bleeding and I’m afraid to go to the restroom to find out. What if blood runs down my legs for everyone to see? Perhaps this is an infection. After all, I don’t really know who this Dr. Diaz is. Maybe the old man did the operation while I was knocked out by ether.

“Please God,” I pray under my breath, “don’t delay this plane. Please God, don’t let me die.” Over and over I say the same words until they become simply, “Please God. Please God. Please God.”

If I live, I don’t know how I will make it home from the airport. At least Renée will be meeting me. I won’t have to deal with any more taxis.

In the airport, Renée takes one look at my white face and doubled-over body and says, “You’re going to the emergency room.”

“Call Dubrovnick,” I say. “And call my mother. Tell her food poisoning. She’ll believe that since she always thinks we’ll get poisoned if we eat anything but her cooking.”

Dubrovnick meets me in the Emergency Room, examines me, instructs a nurse to take me into a small operating room, and then—nothing—until he reappears as I awaken.

“Don’t worry,” he says. “You are clean. I don’t know where you went—and I don’t want to know—but whoever it was knew what he was doing. You have no infection. There was a bit more placental tissue left and that was the cause of your cramping. I removed it and now you’ll be fine. You are one lucky girl.” He pats my shoulder once again.

“Thanks,” I murmur, and as I fall asleep again, I think “for nothing.”

“Before Roe” appears in a slightly different form in Debby Bloch’s novel, That Old Song and Dance

Debby Bloch’s first novel, That Old Song and Dance, was published by Barbarian Books. Her short works have appeared in Able Muse and Switchback. A retired professor from both the University of San Francisco and the City University of New York, she is the author of seven books and numerous articles related to her academic field. Debby has a BA in English from Brooklyn College, an MS in counseling from St. John’s University and a PhD in organizational studies from New York University. In 2009 she graduated from the University of San Francisco’s MFA in writing program. Debby lives in San Francisco and Ashland with her husband and reader extraordinaire, Martin.