What We Carry With Us

Elizabeth Burk   


The sharp instrument digs into my flesh as I lie on the doctor’s examining table, my shaking legs spread wide.

“Calmez-vous, mademoiselle.” The pudgy French physician in a pin-striped suit wedges himself between my legs, alternating instruments while he frowns and peers inside me. He finally settles on a long silver needle-like object which he inserts cautiously. I have momentary visions of Madame Defarge, Dickens’ ruthless revolutionary. Knit one, purl two. I try to keep my mind off the pain. I don’t dare move. I clench my fists to keep from crying out.

It is Paris, mid 1960s. I am 22 years old, working in a French bank and living in a huge, once elegant but now run-down apartment off the Champs Elysees with my Spanish boyfriend, Orlando, and an ever-changing circle of American friends. Former college roommates, Marla and Janet, along with two other friends whom we met in Paris form the crux of our group. An early experiment in communal living.

I have not been trying to conceive. On the contrary, it is an experience I’d been hoping to avoid. But procuring birth control in this Catholic country is a nightmare. The clinics are unwieldy experiences of red tape and long waits. My one fitting for a diaphragm produced an ill-fitting object which, when greased up with spermicidal jelly, springs from my hands and leaps across the room like a flying saucer. Once inserted, I can feel it tipping about, like a dinghy about to capsize. This has not made for satisfying romantic encounters, so I have been cavalier about birth control. Now I’m caught, pregnant and scared in a foreign country.

The doctor issues instructions as he dismisses me.

“You must go home now and wait. When the bleeding starts, call me immediately. Then I will admit you to the hospital and perform the necessary surgery. This is the only way we can proceed.” He avoids the word abortion.

I return to my apartment and wait. The only possibility more frightening than bleeding to death is the possibility of not bleeding at all.

A day later I call the doctor in a panic. “Nothing has happened yet. What should I do now?”

“Well then, come back,” the doctor says, oozing impatience. “We’ll try one more time.”

Unappealing as this sounds, I have no choice. I haven’t yet told anyone, including Orlando, about my situation. The thought of giving birth in France terrifies me. I’ve seen the hospitals here—ancient buildings with cavernous rooms, high ceilings, crammed with hospital beds against all four walls, unattended bed pans at the foot of every bed, dirty dingy sheets, and nuns everywhere, bustling about, ignoring patients. More significantly, my ambivalence about committing to this relationship, which I’ve been suppressing, is now rumbling like an earthquake, threatening to surface.

These thoughts spur me to action, and I return to the doctor’s office. He is even more brusque than before. “There is no guarantee this will work,” he says, in the patronizing tone of a French official speaking to an American ex-pat. As his stubby hands jab at my insides, I wonder if he’s as apprehensive as I am. If something goes wrong, he has much to lose, as do I. In this moment though he reminds me of Toulouse-Lautrec, and I am one of the floozies from the Moulin Rouge. This thought amuses me, and I begin to breathe again through the pain.

“All right, you can go now.” The doctor dismisses me, shaking his head and looking dubious. “Call me when the bleeding starts, and I will admit you to the hospital.”

A day later I am back on the phone. “Nothing happened,” I report.

“Well then, I can do nothing more for you,” says the doctor. He hangs up abruptly and I start to cry.

What now?

I go to work the next day, and the next, and the next. My breasts, already huge in this country of the contemptuously petite, are hurting and starting to swell alarmingly. I wonder if I will soon lose sight of my feet, which are also too big by French standards. I’ve had at least one embarrassing scene in a shoe store.

“These aren’t shoes, they’re boats,” the saleswoman says disdainfully to the other customers, assuming I don’t speak the language, as she brings me the only shoes she has in my size. Forty-two does sound obscene and the shoes are ugly. I settle for a more stylish pair, size thirty-eights, put them on, and limp out of the store.

Now everything hurts. I am hungry all the time but everything I eat makes me nauseous. I ache in places I never knew existed. When I catch myself wishing I could pick up the phone and confide in my mother, who doesn’t even know I am living with a man, I know I am in deep trouble.

I first met Orlando during my junior year abroad in Paris, in one of the many student restaurants scattered throughout the fifth and sixth arrondissements on the Left Bank. A sculptor, he like many other young artists from all over Europe, had gravitated to Paris to study at the École des Beaux Arts. I love to watch him at work in the crowded atelier, sweat glistening on his muscular arms, fierce black brows knitted together in concentration. Here he creates his graceful abstract forms in wood, granite, and marble, for which he would later become so well known.

I am initially attracted by his playful and mischievous side, which I find flirtatious and seductive. But beneath that exterior is an intense, driven man, imbued with a sense of purpose and determination I had never encountered before. His family is poor, unable to help, so he made his way on his own from his native city in northern Spain to study art in Barcelona, then on to Paris.

Orlando speaks no English and almost no French, and I speak only limited Spanish, but this is not a deterrent to our relationship. In fact, it’s probably an added attraction. Had we known from the beginning what the other was actually saying, I doubt the relationship would have lasted for more than two weeks. Instead we mime, we gesture, we walk through the streets exploring Paris and each other in an erotic daze. We spend endless hours in the cafes of the Latin Quarter, talking with friends, while Orlando draws sketches on napkins which I stash in my purse to keep forever, convinced he’s the young Picasso of the sculpture world, an expatriate Spaniard who has renounced the repression and brutality of Franco’s regime and is living out his artistic dreams in France.

But I soon discover a darker side to Orlando, moody and temperamental, given to sudden fits of rage and jealousy. During an argument in his apartment one evening, he throws a potted plant across the room, where it shatters into fragments of clay, dirt, and broken blossoms, then storms out leaving me weeping and sweeping up the remains.

Despite these ominous signs, I promise to return to him when I leave for the States in August to complete my senior year in college. Throughout that year apart we write passionate, albeit indecipherable, letters to one another in a language hovering between French and Spanish in which we make plans to reunite.

Immediately following graduation, I return to Paris to resume the romance where we had left off. I manage to get a job working as a bi-lingual secretary in a French bank despite the prohibitive working-paper requirements. Orlando and I have been living together for two years when this unwanted pregnancy hits me with the force of an epiphany, shattering my illusions of a carefree adventure abroad. I suddenly understand that I’ve been experimenting, exploring, playing house with Orlando, while he has been living his real life.

But I have no time to wallow in guilt. I am acting now out of pure instinct and self-preservation, only dimly aware that I consider the possibility of having this child.

I consider my options. Telling Orlando is out of the question. Beneath the outward eccentricities of the artist, he is a down-to-earth traditional, macho man. And sculptor that he is, he has been hammering and chiseling at my psyche in his attempts to mold me to his will, to shape me into his image of an ideal woman. I’m afraid he will insist on marrying me, send me to Galicia to spend the final months of pregnancy with his mother, who runs the outdoor fish market in the ancient town of Santiago de Compostela, and the extended family including his 96 year-old abuela.

And Orlando would be eager to separate me from my American housemates and our expatriate friends who frequently congregate in our apartment. He has great disdain for the spoiled, frivolous American girls he meets in the student restaurants and cafes. Although our apartment is often filled with visitors who stay for weeks and months, Orlando and I spend most of our time alone in our back bedroom. Sometimes, if we have enough money, we go out to eat. Otherwise, we cook together on the one working stove in the huge kitchen and carry our meal back into our bedroom. There are times I would prefer to join the group in the living room, who seem to be having more fun. But Orlando is not comfortable with my friends. He complains constantly about the loose American lifestyle.

“Chicas americanas, penas, sin verguenzas, pendejas.” I may not understand every word, but I catch the drift. We are all a bunch of shameless, wanton girls running around Europe without our mothers, spending our fathers’ money and getting into trouble. Any Latin man could see us coming a mile away, evoking that macho mixture of desire and contempt.

Finally, I decide to confide in Janet, one of my American housemates. Janet is a clone of Glenda Jackson, the elegant English actress with fabulously carved cheekbones and short sleek hair framing her face. From an academic family in Berkeley, Janet has always intimidated me with her ultra-sophistication. Since her arrival in Paris, she has been conducting her own sex life in a casually public manner. We know she’s brought someone home for the night by the trail of clothes tossed off in the corridor on the way to her room—a pair of shoes, a sweater or blouse in a heap on the floor, then a skirt lying in a rumpled circle, followed by various articles of underwear. This trail leads straight to her bedroom door. The following morning two bleary eyed, hung-over people emerge. The guest makes a quick escape while Janet heads for the coffeepot.

I carefully choose a moment when she is still fully sober. It’s early evening and we’re alone in the apartment. Janet is sitting in the living room reading Newsweek, her glass of Scotch still full. The apartment’s only electric heater sits between her legs. She looks up briefly when I enter, mutters a greeting, and returns to her magazine.

I walk into the living room, plop onto the worn velvet loveseat and sigh. No response. I sigh again, more loudly this time, and she looks up from her magazine.

Hey, what’s up? You look upset.

I am more than upset. I get up and pace back and forth before the fireplace. The words do not come easily. I have so far managed to contain my anxiety by remaining mute.

I’m pregnant, I say. This catches her attention. She puts down her magazine.

“Oh shit,” she offers. She looks more closely at me. “Are you sure?”

I nod. Tears and panic well up in my throat. “Yeah, I’m sure. I’ve already been to a doctor.”

I describe to Janet the two back-room procedures which had failed to produce results.

“For Chrissake, Liz,” she says, “why didn’t you tell any of us?”

“I’ve been afraid to talk about it because I didn’t want Orlando to find out. You know how he is. He’ll want me to keep it.”

“Yeah, well, that’s not a good idea.” She pauses to light a cigarette, and in that moment, I breathe a sigh of relief. I feel validated. “So, what are you going to do?” she asks.

“I don’t know. I haven’t the foggiest idea what to do. Damn this country.” But abortion would be no easier at home. We toss around some ideas.

“I hear that abortion is legal in Morocco,” Janet says. We consider the possibility of hopping a plane to Morocco. But we don’t know anyone who lives in Morocco and I can’t picture getting off a plane, hailing a taxi and saying, “Take me to the nearest clinic.” Surely the recommendation of a Moroccan taxicab driver cannot be the best option. Abortion is legal in England too, but only with a letter from two psychiatrists certifying insanity or instability grave enough to threaten the well being of mother and child. I might qualify before much longer. Finally, we agree that taking a plane precipitously to yet another foreign country where we know no one is risky and foolish.

Our conversation is cut short when Orlando arrives.

“Hola,” he addresses a curt greeting to Janet and motions to me with his head towards our room. He is jealous and suspicious of any time I spend with my friends. I leave the living room and reluctantly follow him down the hall, as usual bowing to his moods. Preoccupied as I’ve been, I have not bought anything to cook for dinner. Tonight, we’ll have to go out to eat, and I’ll be forced to make conversation and pretend nothing is wrong.

Confiding in Janet turns out to be an act of good fortune. The next evening when I return home from work, she is waiting for me.

“Have you met my friend Susan yet?” I look at her blankly. “You know, the redhead,” Janet says with exaggerated patience, making me wonder if the state of pregnancy is already beginning to destroy the neurons in my brain. “She’s been staying here in our apartment, on vacation from Rome. Her roommate, Paola, is also in town. Paola just found out she’s pregnant so she’s going back to Rome to have an abortion in the next few days. Why don’t you call her and see if she’ll take you along with her?”

Rome? The city of the Pope? Surely this must be a misunderstanding. I get the phone number and arrange to meet with this friend of a friend, a sullen young Italian woman who speaks no English. We communicate in broken French and Paola agrees to take me to Rome with her, where she will have her third abortion. She seems extraordinarily blasé about the procedure, more annoyed than upset that the need has arisen once again.

The next day I am on a train to Rome listening to Paola complain about her married boyfriend. I tell her I’m worried, not only about the procedure itself, but about the logistics. Will the doctor take me as a patient? Where will he perform the surgery? Is it safe? Paola assures me that abortion is the most popular method of birth control in the very Catholic country of Italy, that the doctor in question is a respectable member of the medical profession, and that she will bring me to the clinic with her. Apparently, more abortions are performed in Italy than in all the rest of Europe.

For the remainder of the trip we are silent. I feel like I’m on a train that is speeding down a one-way tunnel and will either emerge into the light or crash into the narrow confining walls.

I spend a few hours in Paola’s apartment while she calls the doctor to make arrangements. She hands me a piece of paper with his address.

“It’s all set,” she says, “he is expecting you.”

“Aren’t you coming with me?”

“No, no,” she says, dismissing that idea with a wave of her hand. “I’ll go tomorrow. I want to talk to my boyfriend first.”

I splurge on a taxi to the doctor’s office. It is way beyond the city limits, on the outskirts of Rome. If I attempt the Italian metro system, I’m afraid I’ll be lost for days. Although I don’t know exactly how far into the pregnancy I am, I know I don’t have any time to spare.

The clinic is a squat brick building in a nondescript suburb which could be anywhere. I climb the stairs to the third floor and ring the doorbell. When no one answers, I open the door tentatively and enter the waiting room. I am greeted by a receptionist who points down a long hall with a room at the end. When I enter, the doctor motions for me to lie down on the examining table, and I obey.

“Yes, yes, there is bambino here.” The Italian doctor, a tall imposing man with glasses and gray hair nods confirmation, three fingers deep inside me. He smiles at me while his thumb strokes me seductively. I am too terrified to protest.

“Yes, we fee,” he says, nodding, pleased with this opportunity to practice his English. I speak no Italian, so I nod. What else is there to say? He gestures for me to lie back down on the examining table and turns towards his instrument tray. I bolt upright, now thoroughly alarmed. “You’re going to do it right now?” No pre-op procedures, no questions about history, no medications?

“Yes, right now. There is nothing to it. Just lie back down, I take care of you. Then you spend the night here.” He gestures expansively around the tiny cluttered office with a small cot in one corner. “My wife brings you whatever you need.”

I am reassured to know there is a wife involved here. She appears briefly in the doorway, nodding and smiling, blond, chic, well dressed, a far cry from the mustachioed black-clad woman I had envisioned. Clearly, I am at the Ritz Carlton of illegal Roman abortion clinics. The doctor smiles and gives me another seductive stroke and prepares for the procedure: mask, gloves, lowered light, instrument, insert. Then the pain, so intense that I lose all feeling in my limbs. I begin to struggle, but he pins me down. I cannot move.

Quieta, quieta,” he murmurs. This is just the beginning, this needle in the uterus to numb. Then he scrapes. I try to erase the image of tiny arms and legs flailing helplessly, but it proves to be an image which will last for the rest of my life.

Finito!” The doctor looks up and waves his instrument like a conductor waving a baton over the final orchestral chords as the music fades. He extends his hand to me, all smiles and concern, as he leads me, limping and crouched over to the cot. “You will sleep now,” he says, opening a bottle, and handing me a pill and a glass of water. I don’t know what it is and I do not question him. I climb into the narrow bed and, without warning, burst into tears. The doctor comes back and takes my hand.

Che cosa? Why you are crying?”

“I’m afraid I can never have children now,” I sob, inconsolable. I have never seriously considered having children until this very moment. Now I fear that my uterus has been torn to shreds.

“Si, si, si, you will have many children,” the doctor says. “But if you don’t want to have them right away, you must be very careful. After what I do, you are very, how do you say, fertile. You must have no sex for many weeks if you can manage.” He grins—this wild American girl, probably incapable of abstaining from anything.

When I awaken the next morning, the sun is shining. The doctor comes into the room and hands me a prescription, which he tells me to fill at the corner drugstore. He motions with his hands how it should work. I back away hastily, making sounds of gratitude.

I return to Paola’s apartment by metro and find her sitting on the sun porch arguing on the telephone with her boyfriend. Her attempts at keeping the baby seem to be failing. She bangs the receiver down, crosses her arms, and slumps down in her chair, pouting, barely acknowledging my presence. I retreat to the guest room, and insert the prescribed medication, an egg-shaped rubbery mass which streams down my legs and melts all over the bed sheets.

A few days later I return to Paris and attempt to resume my life there. My boss at the bank, a good-natured American man of French origin, who lunches weekly with the French prime minister, welcomes me back with a faintly puzzled look. Although he appears as baffled by my unexpected return as he was by my hasty exit, he does not inquire much beyond a politely discreet “Did your vacation go well?” Conchita, who sits at a desk opposite mine for eight hours a day, knows me better and senses something is amiss. But after several questions to which I give perfunctory answers, she does not persevere. For once, I am grateful for European reserve regarding personal matters. I bury myself in my work and return to my apartment at night. Life goes on as before, but nothing is the same.

I can barely face Orlando knowing what I have done and fear I will not be able to contain my secret. He has often told me he can see right through me, and as he is older than I and worldly-wise, I believe this to be true. I manufacture a fight, and this time, when he storms off, I let him go. He is hurt and angry, but I am numb. I feel like the shallow child he has continually accused me of being, and that he deserves a grown-up woman by his side. I know he will find someone else who will embrace his life goals and take him seriously. As for me, I am ready to go home.

It is not long after this event that I return to the States. I don’t think about my abortion. I have buried it deep. But an amorphous sense of loss haunts me from time to time, before I even consider the possibility of having a child. I don’t dwell on it and when thoughts surface, I quickly dismiss them. It is not until I give birth to my son, years later, that I begin to comprehend the nature of this loss. Even now, decades later, I find myself musing about this phantom child who dwells in my psyche, surfaces in my dream, with his huge dark eyes, glossy black hair, spirited and forceful, artistic, temperamental. I imagine him grown now, hunched over his drawing board, sketching, designing a building perhaps, or a playground for children.

Hola, mama,” he says, looking up as I enter the room.


Elizabeth Burk is a psychologist who divides her time between a practice and family in New York and a home and husband in southwest Louisiana. She is the author of three collections: Learning to Love Louisiana, Louisiana Purchase and Duet—Photographer and Poet, a collaboration with her photographer husband. Her work has appeared in various journals and anthologies including Atlanta Review, Rattle, Calyx, The Southern Poetry Anthology, Poetry Quarterly, About Place, Nelle, Louisiana Literature, Passager, and elsewhere.