I start with calming deep breaths around M Street, a block away. Then my eyes narrow as my face slips into something a little less comfortable -- pursed lips, clenched teeth, streamlined cheeks -- my street armor. I scan the walkway for the old guy with the pamphlets, steeling myself.
This is my monthly Planned Parenthood ritual. Picking up birth control pills was never so jingoistic. I could go somewhere else, CVS maybe, where retirees don’t pass their days impersonating Jehovah Witnesses, passing out tracts about all the great things my baby will do if I just let it live.
“I’m not pregnant, “ I tell him as he tries to press a pamphlet to my palm.
“You don’t have to answer him,” assures the volunteer, a woman who looks like she might go hiking later. “Sir, sir? You can’t do that here. You know that."
He shuffles out onto the sidewalk, still on his soapbox. I head in the opposite direction. The silver-haired security guard gives me the time and tells me to sign my name, pointing to a line at the bottom of the list with an expertly French manicured nail. I take another deep breath, wait for the door and walk in the waiting room.
This is why I don’t go to CVS to pick up my monthly prescription of magical pills. Because I believe in that waiting room. I believe in its existence.
Inside, mostly women, with a smattering of men who look like they’ve been dragged, sit with their chairs facing a ginormous flat screen. They’re always playing a soap. On their knees are various clipboards. Some fill them out quickly, others take their time, reading every line and contemplating seriously before checking, circling or explaining.
There are three Asian women, six black women, two Latinas, three blondes, five brunettes and one woman I wasn’t sure about and didn’t want to alarm by staring. There’s no staring in the Planned Parenthood waiting room.
There are people staring at their phones, people staring at magazines, people just staring off into the distance. The woman behind the desks asks for a show of hands. “Who’s here for birth control pills?” she asks. Those of us who are, about three, jump up like nerds called to the head of the class.
We’re not here for that other thing our sudden excitement seems to say. Or maybe we just need to get back to work. Looking around, there’s no way to tell who’s here for what -- a regular visit, a pap, an HPV test -- but the leaden prospect of “the procedure” weighs down the waiting room, choking everyone inside into complete and utter silence.
Abortion, abortion, abortion. There. I said it. Three times even.
The problem with women like me is that we rarely say it out loud. Not even once. It’s an open secret between us. Between you and your girlfriends, you and your mother, you and a billboard over the Holland tunnel.
Back in 2009 ,when I was writing my book, there were just a few chapter titles I knew had to go in, titles I wouldn’t bend on. “Abortion Monkey” was the first. You’d think in a book called “Bitch is the New Black,” no one would have said boo to more hullabaloo. But my people had opinions. Was it too much? Was it too “in your face”? Was it too political? Yes, yes, yes and we’re keeping it, I said.
Plenty of women I trust had already read the “Abortion Monkey” chapter, a chronicling of the brief yet enormous period of time I was pregnant as a sophomore in college.
I didn't give myself a moment to rethink writing about it, because if I did then maybe I wouldn't have written it. After reading “Abortion Monkey,” an old friend called me to congratulate me.
“I can’t believe you wrote about it,” she said after a long conversation about a bunch of other stuff. “Wrote about what?” I said, confused. “You know…'the procedure.'” I could hear her air quotes through the phone. I felt, not vindicated, but perhaps validated. Even she could not say it -- yet.
Usually by the time I’m in front of the building on 16th Street, the old guy with the pamphlets has come and gone. Or maybe he hasn’t been there since we first "met." I don’t know.
But I’m going to keep going, feeling uncomfortable and angry and grateful every time the security guard buzzes me in. It's like when I hit send on that chapter. I didn't know what would happen the next day, but I knew I believed in what was on the other side.