Caravaggio, Baby

I have a date with Henry Henderson. We worked together one long summer canvassing for Greenpeace. Yes, I was one of those annoying young people who stop you on the street when you are rushing to your next appointment. He was hot then, now not so much, looking rather fat but with a very good job in city government. After looking at his Facebook photo, I had friended him begrudgingly, but only because we were old mates. I did not tell him I was pregnant. We had gone through, at the end of summer, the quickie abortion experience at a non-profit clinic. One of more than a few I have had, all fathered by partners in super-intense love affairs.

RubyRay-kimberly-1600

Kimberly, photograph by Ruby Ray

Henry. The first guy who ever went down on me as I held his fistful of curls. The moment he got his pants off it was as if he had never done it before. The excitement would make him go all pale and sweaty, and I would secretly worry he may have a fainting spell or worse. Quick to orgasm, full of chat before, during, and after sex, he just couldn’t get enough of me. Or about five other girls we worked with during that time. It was all in good fun. He was the rare boy who was a real gent and lover of women. There was nothing a woman could do to put him off—menstruation, moods, peeing, bloating, nervousness, difficulty in bed—nothing. He held my hand tight while we waited our turn for the procedure, and bought me ice cream afterwards. Paid for it, bought me dinner, invited me to his parent’s place in Sag Harbor.

Thinking about him also made me think about the others, the men I let get away. There was always a reason, or so I thought, but the real issue was always that I wasn’t, and don’t think I ever have been, in love. If that seems sad, well, it sort of is. It doesn’t make any sense to have had so many chances and still not have it. Henry, as far as I can tell, didn’t have it either. So, while I considered myself to be supremely more attractive, I also thought of us as a pair. Of losers. I knew he was only agreeing to give me advice because he wanted to see me, the “absolutely stunning” girl he used to bang.

I ask him to meet me at Maryann’s on the Bowery, where I feel we will have some privacy. Is a newly pregnant woman allowed to wear leather leggings? Why, yes, she is. And a sweet cream colored silk blouse, hair tousled, lips the new/old shade of red everyone is wearing again. A scarf, pashmina, one of five bought in Tokyo. The baby blue one. And heels. Eat your heart out, Henry Henderson. The air is still brisk, and summer seems as if it will never arrive as I walk from my apartment to the restaurant. God, how I love my neighborhood! Where Maryann’s is, not so much, though the bit right by the Public Theater is magical. Walking on Broadway past where the Tower Records used to be. When people still shopped for things like CDs and movies. I still see it there. The old places don’t fade from memory, they are carried in the heart and mind forever. The moon is just peeping out of a sapphire sky as I hobble over the cobblestones past the fire station on Third. How long will I be able to wear heels? My hair is truly luxuriant, what people say happens to hair with hormones flowing. I am nervous now. Am I supposed to even enterain the idea of fucking him, just to be polite? I have never done it with a fat man.

After we are seated at our table I realize I may have underestimated him. He looks pretty important. And smarter than I remember, which is good because I need his help, but bad because I have to work harder to hide my true feelings, as if I have joined Daddy Warbucks for dinner. Does this make me Annie? Should I later sit on his knee and ask for a present? I think too that I should leave my options open about sleeping with him. Who cares about his size? I remember all of the good things about him now as he peers at me through his glasses.

“Liz? Are you alright?”

“Yes! But it’s been so long since I . . . .”

Time for the daily glass of red.

“I know! I’ve been keeping an eye on you, though.”

“You have! Well, I don’t do much of interest, just work.”

“You haven’t changed. Looking better, if I may say so.”

“You may. Thank you.”

I don’t comment on how he has changed and he notices, says, “I’m different. Hope it isn’t too much of a shock.” There is an iced bowl of raw carrots, celery, and olives on the table and I take one of each, nibble, shrug, change the subject. His face softens, he sees I don’t care, and we move on to other subjects. I lean back on the red leather banquette to better survey the room, make sure there are not any familiar faces. No one I know is there. No one I know comes to these places anymore, the haunts of our not-so-distant youth. Indochine. Esther’s. Now people were more inclined to go elsewhere.

My cravings thus far take me to only one place: meat and potato land. There is a porterhouse on the menu so I order it, with potatoes Anna. Henry has the blackened salmon caesar. It is a fine night and I am suprised how much I am enjoying his company, the place, the safeness of dwelling a bit in the past. So much lately has been new and jarring. He tells me that what we need to go over has to be done in private. He lives nearby, on Tenth Street. He suggests taking a cab to his place and I am glad, the leather and heels will not do for another walk. He pays for dinner, which was delicious. I am done gnawing on the bone and have sucked every last droplet of juice out of it and need no dessert.

On the way there, I check my messages and see there are texts from all of the usual suspects. Henry is checking on his stuff as well, and I see his jaw in profile and remember the man I used to know. Kind, determined, a bit on edge always. He smokes now, and there is a pack in his hand at the ready for when we exit the taxi. As we arrive I notice he does not live on my favorite block, but a little further east, near St. Mark’s Church. He has the first floor of a narrow brownstone, with a working fireplace and shiny wood floors. Bookcases floor to ceiling line the wall opposite the fireplace. The small kitchen, done in fancy stainless and granite, is spotless and looks rarely used.

“You like?”

“I do! It’s a real adult’s home.”

“Yeah, remember the dump I lived in near school?”

His apartment at 114th and Broadway was above a Chinese-Cuban restaurant and always smelled of garlic. I recall he owned one futon, a dresser, a broken-down sofa and a television set. I ask him for a cup of tea before he offers me a drink. Then we are sitting very close together on his leather sofa, and he has his hand on my leg. I don’t ask him about his current love life, or even if he has been married and divorced, or anything else. I am just keen on this feeling of comfort with this most unlikely of persons.

I don’t think I’ve had sex sober since I was a teenager, and I can’t even remember what it’s like. He gets up to fix himself another drink and I see he is not quite as large as I thought. Or, he seems less so because I have been forming this other opinion of him, based on less concrete criteria. His kindness, the clear, concise gaze he fixes upon me, the way I seem to be someone else to him, i.e., my other, earlier self, all of this gets thrown into the mix. When we go to bed, it seems perfectly natural and I stay the night, sleeping peacefully in his sparsely furnished bedroom darkened by earthy velvet curtains, my hand resting curled on his lump of a stomach. We have entered an unexpected zone, but I am not nervous about it. I don’t know if it’s him, or the hormones, or both. He sleeps well, too, and I sense he is not surprised by any of it. It has taken me this long to figure out he has sensed my desperation and responded to it like some lover of stray cats. Is that what men like him do, await their opportunity? And why not? I know I do.

The next morning I am off with a smile and a kiss, a queasy, not-right feeling in my stomach. Like cramps, as in before my period comes. I haven’t been to the doctor yet, taking it upon myself to procrastinate, as I am healthy and in no rush to be tied to regular visits and dietary restrictions. But now this seems urgent. I see spots of blood in the toilet, and I feel worse by the minute. I call in sick, something I never do, and then call my doctor. No appointments, they say, but I force them to make one, claiming an emergency, the urgency in my voice getting through to the plump receptionist with too-long hair who wears no make-up. “Rosa, I need to see her today. I’ll wait there as long as it takes.” I’m throwing on jeans, a sweater, flat shoes. I call my friend Tina and tell her what’s up. “Oh, no! Sweetie, it’s probably nothing.” Well, I say, it doesn’t feel like nothing, it feels like something. “Don’t let anyone bother me, OK?” I’m not good in a crisis, I start cleaning things in a hyper-OCD manner when I’m supposed to be leaving: I decide the bathroom rug is dirty and a spray of bleach on all of the kitchen counters is imperative. As I leave I see I have bleach stains on my jeans and sweater, but it’s too late to change.

Dr. Judy Nathan is near the flatiron building, a short cab ride away. I’ve put a pad in place and feel it getting moist and warm. I am not nice to the cab driver, who decides to take a leisurely ride past Union Square instead of going up Fifth Avenue. I will not tip him, am tempted to get out without paying as we pull up to the building office. Now the summer we have been waiting for has finally come and the sweater I am wearing, bleachy and sticking to my skin, feels absolutely disgusting. My hair is stuck to my forehead and I am in danger of crying in public, another thing I have almost never done. This from the girl with balls—what they say you have to have to do or be anything great—who rarely leaves home without them.

Dr. Nathan, from Pakistan, is ten years older than me but looks much younger. She tells me I am not pregnant. At least not at this particular moment.

“Why didn’t you come to see me sooner?” She asks.

“Well, I took the test, and . . . .” I really had no good reason.

“This is going to require an outpatient D and C. Do you have the time today?”

Sure, nothing but time is what I have.

She is giving me her stern look, but also smiling as she snaps off her rubber gloves.

“It’s nothing to worry about, just a precautionary measure.”

I am still prone on the examining table, legs apart. She tells me I can sit up and get dressed, she will return momentarily. The room I am in is the typical small, poorly lit box one would expect. As I put my clothes on I feel the tears coming again, this time out of embarrassment and shame. She is going to tell me I am not ever going to be pregnant, my time has passed, and like so many women who thought they could wait, I waited too long. She finds me in this state when she returns, and as always, I am glad she is my doctor.

“These things happen, my dear. The fetus was just not viable. The body rejects the embryo, and this is a good thing, for who knows what was wrong?”

I imagine something dead inside me, malformed, pitiful. I want it out. I had just been thinking about times when I didn’t want to be pregnant. Now here I was wanting to be but I wasn’t. I don’t know if I can handle the nuances at this point.

“Is there any way of knowing?”

“No. Not in these cases. You have to be at least in your second trimester to do the tests. Which, if you are planning to try this again, you should have, at your age.”

I say nothing, and she decides it’s time to give me a hug and asks, “Are you OK on all of your meds?”

She means the Ambien and the Xanax. The Lipitor. “Yes.”

“If you are really serious about this, you know you need to consult me on what to take, you can’t just go on popping the pills.”

It’s funny, the ways she says ‘popping the pills,’ her lovely accent making the Ps sound like Bs. I start to laugh and fear it will turn into hysterical cackling at any moment. Along with tears. She pats me on the back like the poor old pup that I am. “You’ll be OK. Just come to me sooner next time, OK?”

“OK.”

I don’t know who to call. I am feeling small and helpless and wanting my bedroom, or a darker, tighter space to be in. Which is exactly what I get at New York-Presbyterian: a hot and stuffy room outfitted with all of the machinery needed to inspect my uterus and remove the foreign object. The lighting is crypto-disco, dark with flashing silver power source buttons and green LED numbers on black backgrounds. The technicians seem like aliens in white coats adjusting spacecraft knobs and levers, not very concerned about whether what they are working on is human or machine. I’ve been this route before, know the drill, don’t take offense at the inhumanity of it all and, most importantly, know I will be famished afterwards. The doctor in charge is a bland young man who barely speaks to me and calls me “Ma’am.” Irreverently I plot my impending visit to Katz’s Deli. Tender slices of rosy-colored bliss await. He tells me I will be allowed to rest for an hour there, and then I will be free to go. But I probably shouldn’t eat. IDGAF, I’m eating!

I endure the sounds of the vacuuming of my innards with as much grace as possible. There is a disturbing pressure that lifts your middle up, then shakes it around a bit, as a dog might do with a toy. You feel like you need to pee, or worse. A nurse, the only one who seems remotely human, helps the doctor. She has tired eyes and is wearing a smock bearing colorful teddy bears. Patting my arm, she says, “almost finished,” and I want to hug her. It’s not supposed to hurt, but it does. Is it imagined pain? The machine beeps and we are through, the suctiony, washing-machine sounds it emits ending. I think of procedures like this being done around the country, often in places where the doctors and patients are threatened by wackos. I remember reading in Susan Brownmiller’s In Our Time about pre-legal times when women started their own clinics, did this procedure from their homes with crude apparati like lengths of rubber tubing and catheters.

I am reminded of one of my favorite paintings by Caravaggio, a still life of a sleeping infant floating on a pure black background, as if the figure was a ship sailing on a dark, angry sea. I found it on a trip to Florence while away for a semester abroad. I was pregnant then, too, and about to have my first abortion in Rome, of all places. The painting is startlingly modern because of the wonderful contrasts of light and dark; so impious, so different from the other paintings in the room. The pearly white of its body is streaked with pink and other iridescent hues, like a sea creature. The baby appears bloated, a bit grotesque, and from the guidebook you learn that Caravaggio used a dead infant as a model.

I remember thinking about it as I sobbed on the grass near some parked cars outside of the clinic in Rome after that abortion. The full moon was in a sky the color of a cheap sharkskin suit. I went to a trattoria afterwards with the remaining two girls who would still speak to me after everyone had found out what I was going to do. We ate arrancini and drank a whole bottle of wine. We were gorgeous and free and so young. Later we danced to the Rolling Stones in a basement bar because that’s what the Italians liked, the Stones and jazz. We met some guys, one of whom remarked how pale I was. I couldn’t, nor did I think I ever wanted to again, have sex. You were a visitor there. You did the things people wanted you to do. Most of the time.

–an excerpt from To the Last Gay Man I Will Ever Love by Deborah Pintonelli

Buy issue #11 in PDF format here for just $5.95, or get the full-color print version via Amazon and select bookstores.


Stories Writing

Leave a Reply