Published on May 24th, 2022 | by Rachel Penn Hannah0
The Secret Drawers: Abortion at Age 12
In June, 1977 I was twelve years old as I sat on the floor of my bedroom, a heating pad against my belly, the remnants of a gray blanket, one that I’d had since I was little, hanging from my shoulders. I twisted the round knobs of my secret drawers. When my dad and I first started to imagine these secret drawers, I had no secrets. It was after my parents divorced when I was five.
When I was eight, Mom sent me down to my best-friend’s house to spend the night while she and the boyfriend I didn’t know drove to Reno to get married. When I was nine, Dad called, insisting that both my big brother and I be on the line so he could tell us that he’d been married at San Francisco City Hall the day before. My parents didn’t speak to each other, but somehow both managed to get remarried without inviting their children.
Before that, I had pictured a small chest with a variety of hidden compartments. Dad and I laughed about how other people wouldn’t know where to look for my treasures and would be fooled by the plain appearance of the chest. There were no promises made as far as timeline and, looking back, imagining them had been the fun part. That was when I had Dad’s full attention. When Dad gave me the secret drawers right after I started junior high, I had forgotten about them and was caught by the awkwardness of both adolescence and infrequent visits. Instead of a chest of drawers, he gave me a wooden cube, stained a reddish brown, with five small drawers. I almost didn’t know what to do with them, but quietly loved them anyway
As I sat on the floor with my stomach cramping and tired, I opened one of the drawers to find a few sheets of stationary, felt pens, and three thumb tacks. In another drawer I found report cards from my 7th grade year. For the first semester I had earned all A’s and one B. For the second semester I had all D’s and F’s. From another small drawer I took out my collection of miscellaneous stickers including some old-fashioned cherubs, butterflies, and a variety with sayings such as “good vibes,” “take it easy,” and “flower power.” It was underneath these that I had hidden the welfare stickers. One was yellow and one was red. One for the pre-op appointment and one for the actual abortion. Payment.
Just the day before I had been twelve years old and pregnant. Now I was recovering from the abortion. Only a year before that, in what felt like my body’s ultimate betrayal, I got my first period. It had come regularly every month since until it didn’t and I was nauseous every day. Even though I’d had sex for the first time just a few weeks before, it didn’t occur to me that I could be pregnant. Strange because at ten years old my favorite book had been A Season To Be Born, a photo diary about a woman’s conception, pregnancy, and delivery which I had read many times. I worshiped babies.
Lucia was the first kid to be friendly towards me since I had started junior high school months before. My friends had been one grade below me in elementary school so I suddenly found myself alone. Lucia’s interest in me was a welcome surprise after months of feeling hopeless about ever finding new friends. She invited me over to her apartment after school and it became clear that I would have to change my good girl ways. A group of girls followed us to the bus stop, girls she clearly knew. I had worn my brown bell bottoms and a side ponytail. One of them called me a “stuck up bitch” and wondered why Lucia would hang out with me. She said “I bet she doesn’t even smoke cigarettes or weed or drink or have sex or nothing.” Being called a goodie-goodie was nothing new to me, even in my own family because I liked to follow the rules and told on people who didn’t, but on that day, I decided I would have to make some changes if I had any chance of actually having a friend.
I stole a pack of Doral’s cigarettes from the carton my mom and stepfather kept in the lower kitchen counter, drank my first beer which was disgusting, and made out with a boy whose name I never knew (which I also thought was disgusting but did it anyway). I started to spend the night at Lucia’s apartment in South Berkeley. Mom had always said I was “too sensitive” and was tired of me moping around, which I had done the entire first semester of junior high, so she didn’t object to me spending lots of time at Lucia’s. It was also the 1970’s at the height of hands-off parenting. Since I longed to escape my home life which felt simultaneously chaotic and lonely, going over to Lucia’s was both terrifying and exciting. I loved the idea of being in an apartment in a neighborhood that was so different from my own. Lucia had a single mother who was depressed and spent most of her time in her room. Lucia was bored at her apartment like I was bored at my house, so she suggested we sneak out in the middle of the night to hang out with other kids down the street.
We usually ended up at the Tylers’ apartment. The front door opened up right up to the sidewalk. Inside the one-bedroom apartment lived five kids, ages twelve to nineteen. The mother was the only adult and she didn’t seem to care that much about what her teenagers did even if it involved alcohol or weed. Just don’t get me in trouble, she told them. Berkeley police officers sometimes stopped by the Tylers’ apartment and it was clear it was a regular thing. After some warnings and laughter, they always left her alone.
On one particular night at the Tylers’ apartment, Lucia and her friend Angela called a boy named Johnny and told him that I liked him. They said that he wanted to mess around with me, but I had to come over to his house. By myself. It was midnight. They dared me to go. Johnny was older, sixteen. He had never even spoken to me but I had watched him flirting with the other girls and thought he was cute. With instructions to call him from the pay phone on the corner by his house, I was scared but determined. An almost full moon lit the way. I could see the pay phone booth in front of Flint’s BBQ Restaurant on Sacramento Street. It was closed but the neon sign was still on, casting a greenish hue on my hand as I put the dime in the slot and dialed the number scribbled on a napkin. Oh God, please pick up. Oh God, please don’t pick up.
“Hello?” His voice was quiet and nonchalant.
“Hi. It’s Rachel.” Silence. “I’m at the payphone.” Instantly, I felt dumb for saying hi and wondered if he even knew my name.
“You know which house’s mine?” There would be no small talk.
“The white one on the corner?” I knew this was right but still said it as a question.
“Go to the door, but don’t knock ’cause I don’t want to wake anyone up.” He hung up and I was sure that I had sounded desperate. There was no discussion about what we were about to do and, yet, it seemed clear.
At the front door of the small stucco corner house, I stood quietly for what seemed like forever, but was probably only about five minutes. I smoothed my lips together to make sure I still had on the strawberry roll on lip gloss I had applied three times on the walk over. Just when I started to picture Mom sleeping across town, Johnny opened the door. Neither of us spoke. The house was dark and I assumed his family was sleeping. He pointed to another door about five feet ahead which was his room. Inside the room was an unmade mattress on the floor and a dimly lit red light bulb hung from the ceiling. The room was too small for much else. It smelled musty like a mixture of sweat, cologne, and weed. I imagined the humiliation of getting caught by Johnny’s parents and feared that what we were about to do would be painful. After he told me to lay down, he moved quickly. I didn’t know what to do but he did. It hurt between my legs as he made noises. Then it was over. He rolled off and let out a big sigh. I asked to use the bathroom. “Don’t let anybody hear you,” he replied. After the pain, the blood I found wasn’t a surprise. When I came out, he sent me on my way. I walked back to the Tyler apartment, barely noticing that the fog had rolled in from the bay, my feet moving in a clumsy haste.
There were a couple of more times with Johnny in the middle of the night and once at the Tylers’ apartment when he told me to go into the small bathroom that opened to the living room. Once inside, Johnny was rough and forceful, pulling my pants down and pinning me against the cold, white bathroom sink from behind. I shed my feelings like snake skin. I was hoping to be Johnny’s for-real girlfriend, but then things just stopped. I called, but he wouldn’t come to the phone. He ignored me completely at the Tylers’ apartment. No explanation. Nothing.
When I realized that my period was late, I went next door to ask Annie what to do. I had also told Lucia who told Johnny, but she said that he had denied even touching me. By then it was summer so I wasn’t seeing Lucia. Annie had already started Berkeley High School that year. She hung out with the rocker kids on the theater steps at school, at least that’s what I heard my older brother say. He was a football player and his team had claimed “the wall” at school. Despite our age difference, Annie was kind to me and I trusted her. I knocked on the front door when I saw that her parents’ cars were not in the driveway, a driveway that we practically shared because our houses were so close. I heard the song Magic Man blasting on the stereo upstairs and could hear Annie singing along. I opened the loose brass front door knob and ran up the creaky wooden stairs to her room. “But try to understand, try to understand,” Annie belted out. I knocked again, not wanting to startle her.
“Hey,” she said when she opened the door.
“You’re a really good singer.” I looked around her room. Heart’s band posters on the walls.
“Thanks.” I could tell that she’d heard this compliment many times and probably lived for it. “What’s up?” Annie had hips and full breasts. It was as if she was already a woman even though she was only fourteen.
“It’s kind of embarrassing, but I don’t know who else to ask.” As the words came out of my mouth, I looked out Annie’s second story window and saw Mom walking up the steps of our front porch, carrying a bag of groceries. I sped up and quieted my voice. “I think I’m late for my period. I’m not sure. I think I am and I don’t know, I just think maybe…”
“What? Are you pregnant? God, Rachel. It’s those thugs you’ve been hanging out with. You really shouldn’t hang out with them. They’re hoodlums, you know?” Annie’s arms crossed as if to protect herself from me.
“I just don’t know what to do now…” I felt small and already regretted telling her.
“First, you have to find out. My mom’s always talking about some free place called The Women’s Collective or something like that. She thinks they’re great because they help poor women with health stuff and birth control and abortions. You know my mom. She’s all about that.” Annie paused and noticed me looking out the window. “Don’t you think you should tell your mom so she can help you?”
“No. She would kill me. She doesn’t know about my life. And plus, I don’t even know if it’s true. I just haven’t had my period is all. It might not even be true.” Annie’s long-haired cat jumped on her bed and began to knead the rumpled blanket.
“Well, go to that Women’s Collective. It’s somewhere in Berkeley. Just look it up in the phonebook. You better go soon though.” I was surprised by a genuine look of concern on her face.
“Please don’t tell anyone, Annie. Please.” She said she wouldn’t and as I ran down the stairs of her house and across the driveway to ours, all I could think about was how I would get the phonebook (that was kept in the kitchen where Mom would be putting away groceries) up to my room to look up the number.
I decided that I was for sure pregnant the next day as I rode the bus over to The Women’s Health Collective. The woman that worked there acted like she cared, but I wanted nothing of it. After she told me the test was positive, she said I had “options.” Before she could explain, I said I wanted an abortion. She told me about Emergency AFDC, which would pay for it. She told me where the welfare office was so I could apply, writing it all down which was good because there is no way I would remember the details. She explained that AFDC stood for Aid to Families with Dependent Children which confused me because I, myself, was still a dependent child. I thought about having a baby inside me, like baby Julia, who lived up the street with her single mom, and I felt sick.
The next day I took two buses to the welfare office at Broadway and 51st streets in Oakland. A busy intersection.
I stood in a long line of people, all moms as far as I could tell. Women in tired clothes, not that my clothes were especially nice. We didn’t have very much but I knew we weren’t truly poor. The moms who waited seemed worn out and irritable, sounded impatient with their kids. A brother and a sister sat on the floor and played jacks, a game I loved and for a moment I wanted to join in. But a tightness banded my already sore chest. The nausea got worse and I felt confused. I wondered if I could be a mom if I changed my mind about the abortion. It seemed lonely, but maybe less lonely than I already was because then I would have a baby or child to love, to love me. When I finally got to the front of the line I told the clerk why I was there, for Emergency AFDC for a medical procedure, just like the woman at the Women’s Health Collective had told me to say.
“What kind of medical procedure?” she asked. She kept her eyes on her desk and seemed bored.
“An abortion,” I said one notch above a whisper so no one would hear. The clerk rolled her eyes, reached over for a clipboard, put a form on it, and grabbed a pen. Not once did she look at my face although it was clear she had already sized me up.
“Fill out all the information and wait to have your name called,” so I did, making sure to attach the proof of pregnancy and my social security card. I sat and waited and watched lots of women go in and out of the cubicles with their fussy babies or cranky children. I pictured myself in their shoes coming here with a baby for help with food stamps or whatever else I would need. I watched one baby hug her mom’s neck with her doughy arms. There was a longing, watching that baby love on her mother. But this was quickly followed by dread, the acknowledgement that I was just a kid myself, knowing that my mom would never let me have a baby. I felt ashamed of all the things I’d done, what I would soon do. I had forgotten that deep down I didn’t want to grow up and became aware of how tired I already was.
Finally, I was called into a cubicle by an older woman. To my relief, she didn’t comment on the pregnancy, but told me it could take up to two weeks for approval, until I could pick up the “stickers” I would need to give the doctor for payment. I left feeling nervous because I would have to wait so long for the stickers even though I had been told that it would be okay because it would still be the first trimester, a term I was hearing for the first time.
That night I thought a lot about how Johnny denied that he had ever touched me. I started to cry and then couldn’t stop. For a long time. Laying on the scratchy carpet in my room, I wondered why he would say that. Is it because I am not pretty? Because I’m only twelve and he’s sixteen? Is it because I am that nasty? Soon I was crying about everything, about being worthless and being alone, and at some point, I didn’t even know why I was crying. I just knew that I couldn’t stop and part of me wished that I was dead.
I don’t know how Mom found out but she did. Must have been Annie’s mom. The day after I got the stickers she sat me down on the living room couch. She was smoking a cigarette and had a TAB diet soda in front of her on the coffee table next to a semi full ashtray. She sat with the phonebook in her lap, the same one I had used to look up The Women’s Health Collective. Did I leave evidence?
“How long have you known?” Mom fingered the edges of the thin phone book pages. She pursed her lips from side to side which she only did when she was mad.
“I dunno.” I was unable to look at her face for fear that she was either angry with me or crying. I couldn’t handle either.
“I called your doctor and arranged for an abortion next week.” She sounded sharp but matter of fact which surprised me even more.
“I already set it up.” I sat up straight.
“What?” Mom looked confused.
“At The Women’s Health Collective,” I said with a hint of pride. I can take care of myself, I thought.
“How are you going to pay for that?” Mom challenged. Her eyes narrowed.
“I got AFDC stickers.” I started to bite my nails.
“What are you talking about?” Mom took a drag of her cigarette.
“Aid to Families with Dependent Children? It’s welfare Mom!” I snapped. Duh.
“What?” Mom sat up straighter and sighed. “Who’s the boy? We need to call his parents and make him take some responsibility too. He doesn’t get to skate free. This isn’t kid’s play.” Play was kickball in the street after dinner with the neighborhood kids just last summer, I thought.
“No. I’m not telling you.” I noticed that there were no sounds to indicate that my brother or step-father were home. It was quiet yet I was still worried someone would hear, but figured my step-father was fishing down at the pier and my brother was in his room with the door closed, always with the door closed. “Because I don’t know.” I lied to avoid the scene that would follow if I told the truth. I thought about getting up and going upstairs to my room. I wanted to be alone. But I stayed. This will be over soon, I told myself, staring at the browns and reds in the oriental rug.
“What do you mean you don’t know? How many boys have there been? You’re only twelve years old for god’s sake!” There was a pause. “And stop biting your nails. It’s distasteful.” Mom let out a huff of air.
“Don’t worry about it.” I put my hand back on my leg. “I took care of everything.” And I don’t need you, I wanted to say.
“Well.” She took in a long breath, straightened her posture, and started to tap her food. “That’s resourceful for someone your age, but we will go through our doctors with our insurance.” I was surprised she dropped the boy thing so quickly.
“I have to do it before it’s too late,” I tried to sound like I knew what I was doing.
“They can get you in for surgery next week. I’ve already made the appointment.”
“Surgery?” I hadn’t thought of it like that. It was a procedure, not surgery.
“Yes. An abortion is surgery, Rachel. What did you think it was like, getting a shot? It’s not.” Her tone was harsh. She clearly wanted me to learn a lesson. “But it’s outpatient surgery so you will come home the same day. Tell me. Who… is… the… father?” She said each word through her teeth with a pause in between. It felt weird to hear Johnny referred to in this way. The father? There was no way I was going to tell her that it was Johnny who denied that we even did it. I decided I would rather she think I was a slut, and wasn’t I? If she knew it was Johnny, she would be pounding on his door in no time, demanding to speak to his parents. The last thing I needed was more humiliation.
“It doesn’t matter.” I looked away from her to our calico cat curled into a ball on a couch pillow, apparently relaxed and in a deep sleep. “I already said I’m not telling you because I don’t know and if you make me I’ll just run away and do it myself like I was gonna.” There. You can’t make me.
“Don’t be ridiculous! Anyway, you have a pre-op appointment on Wednesday and then the abortion will be on Thursday.”
“Whatever.” I got up to go to my room. As I was climbing the stairs I felt her eyes at my back. Her pregnant twelve-year-old daughter. I knew I would go along with her plan because the truth was that I had been scared to do it alone.
On Wednesday, my mom’s friend, Ruth, came to pick me up because Mom was at work. She was taking me to the clinic for the pre-op appointment. My step-father was unemployed and Mom said she couldn’t find anyone to cover her shift at the antique store on Solano Avenue. I didn’t know what to say to Ruth and stared out the side window to avoid any conversation. I got my blood taken before I saw the doctor. Alone. Thank God. The doctor told me she was going to put some kind of stick made of seaweed in my cervix to make the abortion easier the next day.
“It will get your cervix to slowly open before the abortion,” she said. At least she was female. It was mortifying enough.
My mom was at work and I didn’t know what a cervix was. I wouldn’t ask Ruth. I was embarrassed to ask the doctor. I just went with the idea that it was somewhere inside. I had never had a pelvic exam, the kind where you take everything off from the waist down and put your feet in metal things that had potholders covering them for padding. Why do I have to be so gross? The doctor had to try several times to get the seaweed stick inserted. I laid there quietly crying from the intense pain, my back arching up. I thought about how this was the beginning of the end, how even though I was only twelve, I would be thirteen by the time the baby was born if I kept it. I thought about little baby Julia up the street and how much she loved me and I loved her. Finally, after several tries, the doctor said “It’s in now” and peeled off her gloves. Ruth was waiting outside the door.
“Okay. Let’s go” she said. She was like that. Directed. We started to walk down the hall, me following her.
I suddenly became lightheaded, hot, and started to see white circles. The circles got bigger and started to overlap and then I guess I fainted in the hall because I woke up with a nurse putting something under my nose that smelled bad. Apparently, Ruth had called for help. They got me back inside an exam room to lay down. I could feel that the seaweed stick had come out. The doctor was called back in and this time she said oh well and didn’t try to put it back in.
“She’s so young. Her cervix is too tight,” the doctor told Ruth. Oh God. Why did she say that in front of my mom’s friend? I thought about how Mom had insisted that I do the abortion her way instead of mine and, yet, she wasn’t even here. She sent me to be humiliated in front of a woman who bragged about her children’s grade point average and volunteer work. I stared at the ceiling and reminded myself to breathe.
After a bit, we walked out in silence and she drove me home.
The next morning another friend of Mom’s, Linda (a tall, lanky woman from across the street who made her own bread and smoked weed), took me back to the hospital. Mom was at work again but said she would come pick me up. Linda didn’t talk much either, but it didn’t feel like she was judging me, so it was easier. She stayed with me in the waiting room until my name was called. I was taken in and hooked up to an IV and then all went fuzzy like the edge of the fur of my favorite stuffed animal, Matilda. I heard the sound of the sucking. It reminded me of the high-pitched blender at Fenton’s Ice Cream Parlor where my dad and stepmom used to take me for Swiss milk chocolate milkshakes. Then it sort of sounded like the instrument they use at the dentist that sucks out the saliva, blood, and tooth dust from the corners of your mouth. There was also a swishing sound, the motor, and the cramping pain which grew more and more intense. No questions were asked of me, no obvious concern about my well-being. It was as if I wasn’t there. After it was over I was wheeled out and into a large room with beds in a line, each separated by a curtain. I continued to cramp like I had never cramped before, the tears slowly sliding down into my ears.
After what seemed like an hour, a nurse came over and told me it was time to leave. I begged her to let me stay longer because of the pain. “We can’t let you do that. The space is needed.”
“But the cramps.” My mouth was so dry I could hear a crackling noise when I spoke. The nurse uncovered me and pulled me up.
I clutched my belly as I sat up. The nurse led me back to the dressing area behind the curtain. “Next time you’ll know not to have sex,” she said with a sudden sharpness. I thought I saw hate in her eyes. Until that moment she hadn’t even looked at me. With no one around, she was free to let me know what she really thought. Silently I agreed with her. How could I have let this happen? What kind of irresponsible monster was I? Self-hatred filled me like a water hose turned on full force into an empty bucket.
Mom was there when the nurse slowly walked me out to the waiting room. As we drove home, I closed my eyes and leaned on the window so I didn’t have to talk, then went straight to my room and got in bed. Mom left me to rest with a heating pad until several hours later when she called me for dinner and said “Are you doing alright, honey?”
“Yes,” I called downstairs, feeling mad at her for reasons I didn’t understand, maybe it was the way her tone had suddenly softened. We didn’t talk anymore about what happened. I didn’t know if Mom told my brother, but she did say that she had told Dad. I couldn’t imagine that. My parents didn’t talk and I hadn’t been seeing Dad much at all. I assumed this was because I was surely repulsive to him by now that I had changed. At least I knew Dad would never mention the pregnancy which was a relief.
Dad was a great builder. I ran my hand against the grain. Then with the grain. He had finally made my “secret drawers,” a beautiful wood cube with five drawers and round knobs. He had thought of me even when we weren’t together. I had forgotten about them, the idea of them, and then there they were. As I pulled the blanket tighter around my body, still tired from the abortion the day before, I looked at the AFDC stickers which I turned over and over in the palm of my hand. What would I do with them now? Would I get in trouble for not using them? Would they assume I was a girl who had changed my mind? The stickers reminded me of the ride tickets you buy at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. I also had the feeling that I had somehow tainted the warm, reddish brown wood that Dad had thoughtfully put together for my use, unexpectedly fulfilling a promise he made to me years before. I hoped he knew how much I loved them, but the problem was that I no longer remembered why I had wanted them, what I should be putting inside them, and now that I had secrets, they seemed too big and messy to fit inside the carefully crafted box.