New York City-born, liberal, secular Jewish parents raised me. Roe v. Wade was the Eleventh Commandment. A good Jewish boy never questions the wisdom of his elders. Then I left home for college and began exercising my right to choose.
I chose intoxication over study, girls over grades, all with reckless irresponsibility that lead to an unwanted pregnancy.
Liz was my first girlfriend and my first abortion. There was no debate: the pregnancy would not come to term. It was a cool, clear morning as we walked the side streets, empty of traffic, to a clinic. It was quiet, uncomfortably still. The intense sunlight flattened the granite faces of the stout buildings. Everything looked real and unreal at the same time. I could hear my pant legs rub together in a loose rhythm as I walked. The sidewalk was hard beneath my sneakers. Plate-glass storefronts reflected the sun and glared at me pop-eyed. Neither Liz nor I said a word.
Ahead of us I saw a cat sleeping peacefully in front of a closed metal gate. I lurched for it. Quickening my pace to reach the cat, which offered momentary relief from the awkwardness — nerves, fear and sadness — I felt but couldn’t express. When I reached the animal, stooping to greet it, before my bare hand touched its gray fur, I stopped. The cat was dead. The gate was the entrance of a Jewish cemetery.
Liz went into the doctor’s office alone. I sat in the waiting room. She came out after about an hour. We split the bill like a Dutch treat, and walked back home. Liz told me she didn’t remember a thing. They knocked her out with drugs.
I don’t question the legality of abortion. I fully believe in a woman’s right to choose. Less absolute is what is being chosen. Abortion ends life. Whether human or merely a collection of rapidly multiplying cells, I don’t know. When the growing mass becomes sentient is impossible to answer. Abortion may not be murder, but I know something died that day.
If I learn from experience, it’s slowly. I continued to knock Liz up and then abort the fruit of our labor. Soon I didn’t even accompany her to the clinic. I always thought I’d have a family. Who knew it would be a dead one.
There were other abortions, but I didn’t learn about them until later.
Kate found our apartment in Brooklyn, a floor-through above a shoe store called Johnny’s Bootery. Every Catholic school kid that grew up in South Brooklyn knew Johnny’s. They sold the regulation shoes that went with the required school uniform. Our kitchen overlooked a public-school playground. There were basketball courts and a tall standalone wall for handball. Every couple of months a bottle, combination lock or some other pubescent flotsam and jetsam would crash through the window. The landlord poorly repaired the damage with sheets of plastic and duct tape. From the schoolchildren marching into Johnny’s to the schoolchildren smashing our windows, there was no getting away from kids. These I could not abort.
Kate was removed from my life without the aid of a doctor. For several months after our separation Kate’s room was empty of Kate, but not her belongings collecting dust. She promised to pick up her things, but never did. I left it untouched until I got tired of looking at it and began to box stuff up.
When Kate and I broke up I was a mess. The admission of failure was more embarrassing than Kate’s blatant fooling around. As bad as we were to each other, I could only remember the good times. I loved her. I love her. I guess I always will, but like Kate prophesied: love dies if you let it. It was over. I found someone I loved and cared for, who I wanted to share a life with, and loved and cared for me. Life moves on and I had to move on with it. But I could never let go of Kate with her presence lingering in the apartment. A friend only half-jokingly suggested performing an exorcism. I decided to exorcise Kate’s physical remnants and move them out on the street if she wouldn’t come and get them.
I sat on top a mountain of colorful bras, G-string panties, thigh-high leather boots, mini-dresses, fishnet stockings, Fluvog platform shoes, latex skirts, false eyelashes, rock T-shirts, crumbled cigarette packs, bent beer caps, kiwi dolls, Keane prints of teary-eyed dogs, wigs, whips and bondage gear, torn condom packages, strap-on dildos, a galaxy of half-used makeup, band flyers, books and imitation jewelry. Then I found Kate’s notebooks.
Kate kept a journal, on and off, long before we met. I respected her privacy, never once taking a peek. But now, alone and entangled by the ephemera of our tattered marriage, I sought insight. I needed to be kicked in the balls; violently reminded of why I awoke from a deep sleep, shake the cobwebs of selected memory out of my head.
It hurt. I never suspected the extent of Kate’s dishonesty. There were several entries in which she wrote that she was leaving me. I wish she had. I wish I left Kate that dawn on the rooftop. It made me angry. It made me sad. I was in shock.
Kate wrote that she was pregnant. Kate was going to leave me and run away to start a family with one of her lovers, a guy we called Hairdo from the neighborhood bar. Later in the journal I read that Kate aborted the baby.
All of this happened years ago, as if to somebody else. I couldn’t hold the facts in the narrative of my life.
Kate and I had talked about having children. I had similar conversations with other girlfriends. For a self-confessed family man I was indecisive on the subject of starting a family. I wanted one, just not now. Now being whenever I was asked. I was too young, too poor, too inexperienced. There was always an excuse. I’m unable to make up my mind about why I can’t make up my mind — why should parenthood be any different?
Kate’s notebooks went into a large trash bag with her clothes, which I tied in a knot and pushed into a corner with her bed, dresser and vanity. Kate finally took her stuff away in a van and lost it all some time later when she couldn’t keep up the payments for the storage space she rented.
There’s a picture somewhere of a place that doesn’t exist. In it I am an old, happy man, just like I envisioned myself as a young, confused boy. My wife is close by my side and at our feet are all our dead children, an unborn family portrait where aborted fetuses rest on a bed of torn-up journal entries.
This is an excerpt from Peter Landau’s memoir, Schmuck: Faith, Fatherhood and Foreskin. Find his writing here.