The first time I had sex, I got pregnant. People say you always remember your first time, but I remember nothing. I do remember the day I had an abortion.
It happened in one of those motels that screamed low-class, low-rent and illegal. Matchbox bungalows separated by carports, window air conditioners and patches of unpulled weeds. A clandestine structure, lurking in the afternoon shadows of an old Spanish mission. The Mexican bruha who knocked on the motel door was part midwife, part healer, who used herbs and witchcraft. My boyfriend had gotten her number from a fraternity brother. Her instructions were that I was to be alone, or she wouldn’t come inside.
The bruha spoke little English, and my high school French was of no help, but I understood her instructions. I lay down on the thin motel mattress, bare-assed, legs spread wide. I’m not sure what she used, but she prodded me with something sharp. I remember wincing in pain and turning my head toward the water-stained wall, feeling more alone than I thought possible. She packed me with cloths and sanitary napkins, then slapped my thigh and instructed me to get up.
AS QUICKLY AS IT HAD TAKEN FOR ME TO CREATE LIFE, I’D SET IN MOTION THE END OF A LIFE.
The bruha handed me an envelope full of pills, then waved me into the bathroom. With sign language and broken English, I understood I was to spend the day walking, and when “it was over,” I was to leave things in the toilet and call her. Since there was no phone in the room I would have to walk to a pay phone a block away. She would then come back to make sure everything was there, but again, I must be alone. At that moment I realized that sad, sleazy room could have been filled with everyone I knew, and still, I would’ve been alone.
After she left I went outside and followed a Mexican man in faded pants and dusty work boots into the old stone church of Mission San Jose. I watched as he settled into a plain wooden pew and bowed his head in prayer. He made it look so easy. I stood in the shadows and scanned the frescoed faces of cherubs and saints, searching for a sign. No tears flowed from the Virgin Mary. No leather books full of answers and too-late alternatives.
Over the years I keep returning to Mission San Jose. I remember exactly where I was when the priest joined me in my walk and began telling me about the history of the old mission. I don’t know whether there were any tells in my behavior, but I imagine he already knew why 17-year-old anglo girls visited his mission in the middle of the day… alone.
Now as a woman of faith, I believe life is sacred. A gift from God not to be squandered or taken lightly. I also know what it’s like to be a 17-year-old girl, who got pregnant the first time she had sex; whose mother was mentally ill and would have made matters worse in exponential ways I couldn’t have imagined. Don’t ask me to come down hard on either side, because I can’t.