& Harvard College, Cambridge, MA
This is a story dedicated to Roger from Mashpee Mass. Who from this point on, and for purposes of expediency, will be referred to as: Roger from Mashpee Mass.
It is also dedicated to my mother and the abortion she had in 1945 Cambridge as an undergrad at Radcliffe.
Sooooooo……. I had to write a thesis. To complete my undergrad degree at Harvard somehow, horribly, I had to write a thesis.
I would never, ever have elected to write a thesis but there was simply no way out of it in my particular concentration. I lived off-campus that year with three friends on Fresh Pond Parkway and every day dressed up to go to work at Widener Library. No rolling out of bed in skanky pajama bottoms for me! I took my thesis seriously and tried desperately to wrangle my increasing panic into external, esteemable behavior. Panic and denial, however, are not inherently esteemable, so I did what I did back then to relieve panic and create distraction: I had an affair with an actor. Roger from Mashpee Mass.
Now, Roger was not a college student; he was a local professional actor who worked with my friend at the Loeb Drama Center. To blow off steam post-Widener (or avoid going in at all), I hung out with my friend and his jolly crew. Roger was the troubadour at the center; round-faced, small-waisted, he had golden curls that reminded me of Robert Plant at his most god-like.
He was so beautiful and fun and funny – and everything the thesis was not.
We laughed and flirted and painted sets and fooled around and (I don’t really remember how) we finally slept together because I was so willing and so curious and so did not want to write my thesis.
And then my period was late.
I had had an abortion the summer before with my boyfriend who lived in New York. He was lovely and the abortion was not traumatic at all. It was a relief in every possible way. (It occurs to me now, that this kind of abortion is a miracle.)
Honestly, I didn’t think twice about it until there was a possibility, I’d have another one within nine months. It was also true that I wasn’t completely certain about whose baby it would be (I was still “with” my boyfriend in New York.) But I was fairly certain it would be Roger’s from Mashpee Mass.
I called him, and he didn’t call me back.
I said, “I have a problem, Roger” and he didn’t call me back.
I got a cold. It was a horrible February in Cambridge. I sat on my futon sobbing and my dear roommate Debbie came in and said, “what’s wrong?” and I said, “I have a cold and I can’t finish my thesis and I think I am pregnannnnnnt!”
Somehow, I let my mother know.
My mother knew about the abortion the previous summer and although I didn’t know then what I know now about my mother’s own college experience, I knew there was stuff I didn’t know.
I knew that she and her crowd from Radcliffe got there in 1943 when mom was only 16. It was wartime. Then two years later not only did we beat the Nazis but (more importantly to those Radcliffe gals) Cambridge was flooded with super studly, cocky sailors who not only had beaten the Nazis but (more importantly to the sailors) hadn’t gotten regularly laid for some time. And I knew they’d liked to drink, and I knew they’d liked to party.
There was sex in the air back then. And when there is sex in the air usually there is birth control and unwanted pregnancy. And though I didn’t know then what I know now, I will say this: my mother was surprisingly sympathetic to my predicament.
She came to see me. We walked around Harvard Yard in the snow, and she said: “You might think about keeping it.”
It was too much for me to take in.
But though I didn’t know then what I know now about my mother’s college experience, I did know that she’d had a hard time getting pregnant and I know now that she connected the dots between what she chose to do in college and my parents’ initial infertility. And even though she knew it wasn’t logical, shame — unasked for but always freely given by our culture — connected those dots.
What she said was: “You might think about keeping it.”
What she didn’t say was: “I also had an abortion.”
It was all too much for me to take in.
If I was pregnant by Roger from Mashpee Mass, there was no way I was going to have his baby – I couldn’t even get the dude to call me back.
I had called him again, and he didn’t call me back.
I said, “I have a problem, Roger,” and he didn’t call me back.
My anxiety billowed like a cloud – I was Pigpen from Peanuts with plumes of radioactivity around me, alone. My thesis was still due, at 5 pm on Friday, March 7. Roger still did not return my calls and still my period didn’t come.
I could have been any woman from any era — a Radcliffe student, for example, feeling isolated and alone amid the post-war victory party in 1945, grappling with the same anxiety on the same cobblestone street. Or an undergrad in Texas or Oklahoma, trying to finish her thesis while being chased by a citizen bounty hunter because she was making the same choice in 2022 that my mother and I made decades upon decades before.
The next two weeks slogged by. At 12 pm on March 7, I finished the last footnote. Those were the early days when we wrote on a typewriter BUT there was a thing called the computer lab. If you typed up your paper and brought it to the geeks at the “computer lab” they would “word process” it for you and they would print it out and they would do miraculous things like “spell check.”
So, I brought my baby, my thesis-baby, to the geek-midwives at the computer lab, and they typed it in and then they went to print it out and something horrible happened, there was some horrible techie-miscarriage of some kind, and my beautiful thesis-baby lost its heartbeat and disappeared into the ether.
It floated around the screen. I would see pieces of my baby waft by — a little arm, a familiar semi-colon, a fragmentary sentence. “Do you recognize that? Is it yours?” they said, and I said yes, but I grew more and more panicked. I couldn’t believe that all my effort of the last six months would be aborted at this strange moment.
They said I was too nervous, and I was making them nervous too. It was 3:30 pm. They said they would do what they could do but asked me to leave the delivery room – computer lab and give them a break.
At 4:45 pm they found me, and I got word that my baby had been saved. They had saved my baby! I went and picked up my baby from the geek-midwives in the delivery room-computer lab. I swaddled her in her little plastic sleeve with her plastic binder. I checked her over and passed her in.
Now it was March. Somehow time had passed from the snowy walk with my mother in Harvard Yard. It was impossibly spring. My thesis was done, and in a week, I was going to join my beloved theater troop on the road. Snow was melting and I was growing up. I took a deep and grateful breath of newly minted warm air — and felt my period come.
The nightmare was over.
I had, in fact, just given birth. To my own life. It was midwifed by the geeks in the computer lab and by a constitutional law passed in 1973.
We all should have a say in what we give birth to, because all of us, of all genders, give birth. To new careers, pieces of art, to children. To a college thesis. To a vision of a democracy that is equitable and just. And at the beginning of every single healthy birth – one where both parent and baby thrive — is our consent. Without it? Only stillbirth.
But back to our story.
Just as in a bad rom-com – when you can feel a cheesy Hollywood studio needing a scene to “wrap it up” – Roger from Mashpee Mass called and wanted to come over.
I said he could. I was no longer mad.
I said to him, “you know, I thought I was pregnant. I was really scared, and you didn’t call me back.”
He looked at me gently. He was so beautiful (always had a soft spot for Robert Plant), and he said to me:
“Oh sweetie! But we only did it once.”
I looked at him and I knew that my life here in Cambridge was absolutely over. I was moving on; college was done. I looked into his gray eyes and whispered, with no malice or rage: “You’re a fucking idiot.”
And then we said goodbye.