Then, while drawing a circle on the notepad, she heard her mother’s accented voice.
“I had an abortion.”
Sarah paused her pen. There was no conversational prelude to this revelation. Her mother’s voice simply emitted the words into the vacuum of their afternoon silence. “Oh,” Sarah said.
“It was 1974,” her mother continued. “We were poor.”
The Store was empty. The shelves were filled with brightly colored boxes and bottles, but the carpeted aisles were bereft of prospective customers. Not a single person browsed the greeting cards or an assortment of pain relievers. No one sat on the well-worn chairs waiting for a prescription refill. Something invisible had tugged at the threads of a fraying memory that had been tucked away for years.
Sarah looked down at her notepad and cleared her throat.
“We just moved here, and we had no money.” By “here,” Sarah knew her mother meant the U.S. Sarah also knew that her parents did not have much when they moved “here,” but she did not know that her mother was pregnant before she or her brother Noah was born.
“I cried afterward,” her mother said, her voice faltering.
Sarah neither responded nor asked for any justification. She was a high school freshman who knew what an abortion was and what it meant to be “pro-choice.” The idea of being pregnant, not wanting to be pregnant, and taking the steps not to be pregnant seemed straightforward to her. Her mother’s voice carried an unmistakable melancholy.
Sarah envisioned her mother in 1974. A tiny thing had occupied her mother’s belly before Sarah or Noah did. What did that zygote do differently than either of them? Sarah felt like she had won the conception lottery. She could not believe that entire life, an entire person, did not exist simply because of timing. Sarah thought of the baby her mother never held and the child she never nurtured. She suspected her mother was thinking of the same thing as she held the crinkly-covered book, still turned to the same page.
But her mother’s thoughts were elsewhere. They were in a cold room with white drawn blinds. In July 1974, Sarah’s mother was not Sarah’s mother. She was Soo Yeon, twenty-four years old, and an American immigrant as of last year. Soo was sitting on a clinic bed in a thin, blue hospital gown. Her hands were folded above her womb. Her hair was long and perfect black back then, and her fair skin was smooth and lineless. A wave of nausea overcame her, but she suppressed it, knowing it was the only physical sign she had of the baby’s existence.
The baby, Soo had thought to herself. No, it was not a baby. It was a speck inside of her belly that had not yet made a bulge. She had to think of it as a speck. A handful of cells that amassed together and somehow attached to her uterus. That sounded clinical enough to separate her from the notion of a child, a child she knew she would one day want, but simply could not have at that moment.
Soo and her husband lived in a 500 square foot studio in what was then South Central L.A., where the bed that folded into the wall initially charmed her efficient sensibilities. They shared a bathroom with twenty other families on their floor. She had memorized their cupboard’s contents: a one-pound bag of white rice and a jar of spicy bean paste. The refrigerator held other delicacies, namely, a jar of pickled cabbage and eggs. This food was more than enough to feed them for a month until she and her husband accumulated enough wealth to replenish their rations.
She worked as a virtually mute office clerk in an insurance company, where reading and writing in English were her forte, but speaking was a humiliating exercise in enunciating words she could hear perfectly inside her head but not produce with her foreign tongue. Her husband split his time between studying at Cal State and his janitorial duties on campus after hours and on weekends.
After paying the expenses for the rent, bills, tuition, and food for the month and apportioning a meager amount to family back in the Mother Country, they had several dollars left over. Soo and her husband then prioritized how to spend this bounty: buying toothpaste or soap, going to the laundromat to wash clothes that have not been washed in three weeks, or purchasing a roach motel for the critters whose hunger for the rice was just as desperate as Soo and her husband’s.
One month they had saved up enough to buy an electric fan from a junkyard. Summers in L.A. were hot and with a window facing an alley and no air conditioning, Soo and her husband indulged. When Soo had the flu the previous winter, they saved enough to buy one bottle of Tylenol to manage her sheet-drenching fever.
She closed her eyes and clasped her hands tighter over her womb. The studio, the dwindling Tylenol, the roach motel. She felt her throat clench. At this moment, at this time, the speck could not amount to anything more than a speck.
The doctor approached Soo and said words that she did not fully understand. She nodded and smiled more out of habit and politeness than actual feeling. In fact, she felt almost nothing, just a silent numbness. The only remnant of life she knew she had was the tininess humming within her.
She signed her name in English on forms attached to a clipboard. She did not read the words because they did not matter. Her husband was at work. It was a kind-faced nurse who stood by her side.
Soo looked at the nurse. “Hurt?” she asked.
The nurse smiled and placed her index finger and thumb closely together. “Just a little,” the nurse said. Soo forced another smile and nodded.
After the procedure, her body felt different. Nausea that had plagued her for the past several weeks had vanished. She felt wounded on the inside and did not want to think about what was there before and what was now gone. She did not want to think about what or, rather, whom it could have become. She did not want to think about how the speck had a heart and that its tiny heart was beating healthily a few minutes ago. Soo felt her throat clench again. The realization that only one heart was now beating inside of her released the dam of holding back her grief.
She wept. The doctor had left, and the kind-faced nurse sat by her side with her hand on Soo’s arm while she wept. Shoulders shaking, hiccupping gasps for air, earnest sobs. The nurse waited until it was all done. The nurse knew that the procedure was more than just the operation. It was also this grief, the unabating tears, and the mourning of something that never was.
After Soo was able to compose herself, she dabbed her swollen face with another tissue, looked up at the nurse, and nodded. The nurse nodded back, patted Soo’s arm, and left the room. Soo never saw that nurse again but would always remember her face and the gentle patting of Soo’s arm.
It was time to go home. She now only had to return to her studio, pull down the bed, lie down, and hope that the wound would heal. Let the day end, she had thought to herself. Please let it end.
Sarah’s mother took leave of these thoughts and the cold room. The library book began to feel heavy in her hand. She looked at her teenage daughter dangling her canvas-shoed feet over the chair’s footrest. Sarah’s pen remained paused over her notepad as she revisited her childhood wish for an older sister.
The two ruminated over events and non-events, wavering between life and an alternate existence. When Sarah looked at her mother’s face, her mother’s eyes remained tearless, as if all the tears she had to cry had been depleted, and what Sarah saw before her today was all that remained.
The wound did heal. It healed many years ago and left a scar that ached on occasion. The nurse was right after all. It did hurt just a little. But it wasn’t the wound that had hurt the most. It was the absence.