Paying the Toll
Eyes closed, breaths in quick gasps, he hovered over me, our bodies sweaty, musky, waterbed baffles sloshed beneath me, he thrust his hips faster faster faster until…
You won’t get pregnant, he said. He, the father of five with his ex. I didn’t bother with contraception. A medical school wannabe, he was a dentist. My boss. My lover. My drug dealer. Maybe he didn’t know I stole prescription pads and pain meds from the stock bottle in the unlocked cabinet in the dental office where I worked for him. But maybe he did.
He was eighteen years older than me. Me still under thirty but feeling like a child. Always inferior. Always subservient. He knew best. Right?
I got pregnant.
I sat on the edge of the waterbed. His bed. His house. My hand over my belly. I’m so hungry now, I said. You’re eating for two, he said. So cliché. He walked into the bathroom, his bathroom, the ensuite, although back then, somewhere in the 1980s we just called it an attached bath. I watched the back of him, naked, his lumbar scoliosis from polio as a child made his spine tilt to the left. There was a patch of hair over the indentation on his left hip, black hair, thicker than his skullcap. His head tilted right to sling words over his shoulder like an unused sweater in the heat, hanging by one finger, Schedule your abortion at the end of the month. When the bookkeeping is done. So cold. My hand on my belly. I’m sorry, I whispered.
When I was seven, on summer vacation with mom, dad, big brother, north of the house in Lindenhurst, Illinois, north north north up to Cable, Wisconsin, to a cabin on a lake, I got up early, everyone still asleep, except my dad. I heard the screen door close, rushed to the back door too late to say goodbye or ask if I could go with him. His back to me, a back always straight, he consistently chided my brother, Stand up straight. Take your hands out of your pockets. Wear gloves if your hands are cold. He never said those things to me. He never said much at all to me. He ambled down the path to the lake, hands never in his pockets, hands always engaged, fishing pole in one, tackle box in the other, thermos under one arm, a jacket under the other. I was used to seeing the back of him. The thinning brown/gray hair on top of his head. The neat part on the left side that I’d watched him make so many times, how he combed his short wet hair forward over his forehead then carefully incised the part like a surgeon, combing the strands first to the left, then to the right. There was a small pit in the skin just to the right of the middle of his neck under the hairline. On vacation there was no ironed button-down shirt, just his white t-shirt tucked into his pants, his belt in every loop, not too tight, not too loose.
He climbed into the small boat tied to a short pier, the aluminum boat rocked and creaked while he stowed his gear, then he sat in the middle seat and looked out over the lake, drinking in the north woods like it was his first coffee of the day. Eventually he took up the oars, paddles lapping the smooth water with rhythmic movements, I could almost hear his breath in time with the steady gentle splash then pull through the water until he was far enough away where he yanked the cord to start the small motor, just a gentle hum from that distance, dad now in the back of the boat, right hand on the tiller, eyes forward, never looking back, until the boat rounded the bend, followed the curved shoreline. Dad disappeared, leaving small ripples that barely made it to shore. Soon the water stilled like he’d never been there. I put my hand on my belly to quiet the growl of morning hunger and went back to bed.
The flush of the toilet, the rush of water from the bathtub spout, the clank of the shower valve pulled. Me sitting on the waterbed, I couldn’t remove my hands from my belly. Fingers rested lightly on skin that would soon stretch. Skin that should have had the chance to stretch. The embryo buried deep inside me at a stage of development like a fish. With gill slits. Slits that become gills in fish. Slits that become jaws and ears in humans. Gill slits that should have had a chance to reach genetic potential. The life beneath the skin. My only chance.
Daddy, can I help? Dad with five fish on a chain with a closed hook that pierced their mouths, not the barbed hooks that caught them, a bigger one keeping them connected, imprisoned, unable to swim away, their gills opening, closing, desperate for water to breathe, some still flapping tails, losing energy, becoming still. Perch. Flatheads. Northern. The chain clanked when Dad slapped them on a workbench in a shed to clean them for dinner, never once looking at me. I want to help you, I tugged on his pant leg. Please, Daddy, teach me how to clean the fish. I always had to beg.
His right hand held the scaler, maybe the hand with the tip of the little finger missing, an accident at work he always said. Work, an hour away from home. Work and friends that always kept him away from home. The scaler pushed firmly on the fish skin, the scrape of scales, their armor, their protection removed. Scales like tiny sequins that glistened and stuck to my fingers when he finally relented and handed me the tool. Like this, he had showed me, holding the tail and moving the scaler from tail to gills. The fish was cold. I held the slippery tail in my sweaty hand, tightened my belly against the sick feeling, held my breath, I hated having dirty sticky slimy hands, slid the scaler, didn’t hear scraping, Press harder, he said, his eyes on the fish. I pressed harder, maybe there was a scrape, I looked up at him wondering if I was doing it right, doing a good job. He watched, waited then eventually he nodded, that’s enough, he said. He finished cleaning my fish then dipped them all in a bucket rinsing off loosened scales before he cut off their heads and tails, gutted their bellies. I would never do that part. Unless he asked.
Once I heard the dentist/lover/dealer in the shower, me still on the waterbed, my fingers left my belly and reached into the drawer in the bedside table, grabbed one or two or three of the round white pills hidden under Kleenex, shoved them in my mouth. Empirin #3. Soon relief, soon the bloom of altered state that felt like wellbeing in my belly, soon the codeine would work. I laid down, tugged the covers over me. Maybe I could sleep a little longer.
The days were a blur. A visit to the OB/GYN in Des Plaines, almost an hour from home. A doctor, a man with beige framed glasses. He was slight, shorter than me, thinning gray hair, facing me, gentle concerned eyes focused on mine. Are you sure you want this, he said. My breath caught. I looked away. I never knew what I wanted. I just obeyed. There was still time to have a child. Get off drugs. Maybe I could change the dentist/lover/dealer’s mind.
I didn’t know I would never get pregnant again.
I nodded to the doctor.
Quarterly numbers turned in to the accountant. I don’t remember which quarter. Which year. Which season. Winter. Spring. Summer. Fall. I don’t remember if I wore a sweater or a jacket when I drove myself to the hospital that morning after the argument with him. I don’t remember the argument, just the tears. My tears. Getting into my car alone. A small overnight bag on the passenger seat. Pills in my purse. Backing out of his driveway. Finding my way to the tollway. Digging in my coin purse. Coins slippery on my sweaty fingers. A quarter. A nickel. Paying the toll just before the exit to Lutheran General Hospital. Thirty cents clanked into the basket. The tollgate opened. I forced my foot off the brake and on to the gas.
My fingers sticky on the steering wheel. Breathing shallow. Accelerated. Morning nausea. Gills and scales. Belly gutted.
I put one hand on my belly. I’m sorry, I whispered.
Jen: Hi, Carol! Wow. Thank you for sharing a powerful piece with our readers. I'd like to dive right in. Can you tell us a little more about this piece? What inspired you to write it?
Carol: I have so much grief around never having a child, so I have written about my abortion many times. The most troubling things in my life are the ones I keep revisiting and rewriting in different ways, trying to gain new perspectives. I like to start out with prompts/portals and see what comes out with a stream of consciousness. I trust that there will be connections between sections even when they are not immediately apparent—this one is a helix going back and forth in time. The connections between relationship with father and relationship with husband, the insecurity of a child not seen and how she carries that into marriage.
Jen: What is your favorite book/story?
Carol: One of my most favorite books is Bluets by Maggie Nelson. How so many fragments centered around a central theme of color tell a story. It’s brilliant. I love the color blue. I relate to feeling blue and alone and depressed and doubting myself and having trouble with relationships. I also write in fragments, pieces that might seem disparate but collectively tell a story. Memories tend to be revealed in fragments and that is how I write them. I love how images and objects tell the story. I love how this book has widened my view of “blue.”
Jen: How has your education or professional career impacted the way you approach creative
Carol: Education and work mostly taught me rules and regulations. I have a BA in Communications and I’ve done technical writing in the corporate world. A few years ago, I earned an MFA in Creative Nonfiction. I love being a student and if given a chance, I’d probably go back for another degree. On the other hand, reading and writing groups and workshops teach me how to break rules—how to alter accepted structures of writing so that it is more of an art form. I love writing in hybrid forms such as braided pieces, helixes, and palimpsests. I’ve learned so much from Lidia Yuknavitch and Corporeal Writing where creativity in form is embraced. I’m always looking for new things to learn, not just to alter my writing, but to alter my perspective on life.
Jen: When and how did you start writing?
Carol: I wrote in my diary when I was young and over the years did personal journaling. In school, Literature was always my favorite class. In the 1980s I took a creative writing class and loved it. Somewhere around 2007 I began taking writing workshops and one of the first ones was with Dorothy Allison and Lidia Yuknavitch. I haven’t stopped since then. Writing has become my
creative outlet, my therapy, my greatest joy and, at times, my greatest frustration.
Jen: What do you find most difficult about the writing/publishing world?
Carol: The number of amazing writers out there. There are so many new ways to write—ways to incorporate visual and spoken pieces. There is always something new to learn and it’s hard to keep up with it all, not to mention that it is an extremely competitive field. I think it’s harder for marginalized people too, which includes aging women. Recently at the AWP Conference in Seattle, I was happy to see so much of it devoted to writers of color and LGBTQ+, but there was a shortage of programs for older writers.
Jen: What inspires you to share such visceral and authentic stories?
Carol: We live too much in shame—thinking we are the only ones who experience or do bad things. Sharing is about being seen. Heard. Unconditionally. So much healing happens when we share our stories. It’s about helping others feel they are not alone. It’s hard to be open and vulnerable and sometimes we need to blaze the trail for others—like others have done for me. There’s also the importance of sharing our stories so that others who have not experienced trauma can open their views of life and people that go beyond their own sometimes limited experiences.
Jen: I could talk about your writing all day, but you are also a reader/editor for Unleash. I'd love to end by asking what it is that you look for in a strong piece of writing?
Carol: When I read something, I want to be transformed. I want the words to capture me and take me on a journey where I forget everything going on around me. I want to learn something new. I love images and metaphor and honesty and guts to tell hard stories—then I don’t feel so alone in mine.
The stories that impact me the most are the ones I must occasionally put down because the writing has taken my breath and I must stop and retrieve it. I need time to process what I just read. Right now, I’m reading The Copenhagen Trilogy and it’s slow reading—it’s so beautifully written and deep with meaning that I need time to sit with the words. I also like to have room for my own interpretation – I don’t want a piece to imprison me in a specific perspective or just give me answers. I like to read the process of the author/characters and how they work through their story.
Carol Fischbach is part of the Unleash editorial team. Find out more about her and her work here.