Cupid's arrow is turned away by a tiny life

MICHAEL OLESKER

February 04, 1992|By MICHAEL OLESKER

She comes to his Charles Village apartment one night and stands in the doorway while a chilly wind works its way into her bones.

"Guess what I got today?" she says.

He is startled by her arrival, and her greeting, and doesn't immediately think to ask her inside.

"I don't know," he says, but he feels a vague sense of dread. "A new dress?"

"No. A pregnancy testing kit."

They met last summer in one of those Fells Point bars. He loved her red hair, and she loved his self-effacement. They made conversation that drifted onto Broadway and Thames and seemed witty and charming and bright.

"I'll call you," he said.

"I doubt it," she thought.

But the next morning, there he was on the telephone and the two of them lapsed immediately into echoes of the previous night's laughter.

"Do we have anything left we could talk about?" he asked. "I had such a nice time last night, I was hoping we might have left something out."

A kind of awkward social choreography commenced. He didn't want commitment, she didn't want to lead with her chin. He had a lady friend still hanging along the fringe of his life, she had a career that absorbed long hours.

They drew an edgy truce over sexual intimacy for several weeks, until he called her office the morning after a late-night dinner in Little Italy.

"Last night was fun," he said.

"It was," she agreed, "but I felt sort of . . .'' she let the sentence dangle for a moment, and finally added, "unfulfilled."

"I like your choice of words," he said. "You want to go to lunch?"

"Tomorrow would be better," she said. "It's some sort of state holiday. Everyone in the office will be out for the day. We can mess around."

"Great," he said. "And all I asked for was lunch."

He remembered the bantering when she stood in the doorway last month and talked of the pregnancy testing. She'd left the kit home, she said, nervously running fingers through her red hair. She wanted to talk to him before she found out.

He found himself caught between wanting to comfort her and wanting to know the test results and wanting to flee for his life to some place like South America. She found herself on the edge of bottomless panic.

"Go home," he said. "Give yourself the test. I'll wait for your call."

The telephone rang during Arsenio Hall's monologue. She managed to say his name, then dissolved into tears.

"I'll be right over," he said.

This wall has come down between them now. How much do they care for each other?

The days flip past on the calendar, and the subject of abortion is danced around. It's what we do with abortion in this country now, we dance around it.

The Supreme Court is making up its mind again, two decades after Roe. vs. Wade, and the opponents on both sides of the battle lines gather in state capitals around the country for dueling sound bites on the evening news.

The two of them sit in their separate apartments and watch the dramas played out in the media. They feel strangely disassociated from all the public posturing. This isn't about politics, it's not about legalisms, it's about two people's lives coming apart.

From his kitchen on Charles Street, he tries to call her on the telephone: No answer. She pulls the plug on her phone every night so he can't reach her. She wants him to call, but she suspects he won't. So she pulls the plug for protection: If it's out of order, she can tell herself he tried to call but couldn't get through.

He reaches her one morning at work, before her secretary has arrived, and she tries to sound chipper. No one mentions pregnancy, no one mentions abortion or marriage, but all possibilities hang in the air.

"I'm gonna put on music and dance to it for 30 minutes," she says. "And that oughta do it."

"Really?" he says, looking for some safe, generic response, some distant post from which to watch her take care of things for both of them.

"And tomorrow, I'm gonna work out at the health club and push to the limit. You strain every muscle in your body with those machines."

But the workouts do nothing. The days drift past, and they approach the pregnancy obliquely.

"It's your body," he says, a little too lifelessly. "I'll do whatever you want to do."

"Don't worry," she replies, "I absolve you of all responsibility."

"But I don't absolve myself," he says.

They walk a familiar route along Broadway late one Sunday morning, not far from the place where they met last summer, and see a young couple pushing a stroller. He turns his face away, and in turning sees her grimace.

She wishes to be married, but not this way. He wishes to be a father, but not yet. Those demonstrators outside the State House in Annapolis, outside the Planned Parenthood centers, they seem so sure of themselves. Both sides seem to speak in absolutes: Yes, it's murder; no, it's the salvation of those already living.

Sometimes he thinks they all miss the point: Nobody's in favor of abortion, it's just the sanest way out of an impossible situation, a moment's pain instead of a lifetime's.

Sometimes she thinks murder is the issue: the murder of a fetus not yet living, or the murder of her own future, not yet born.

Now, on Broadway, he looks at the woman at his side. Yes, he likes her; but, no, not enough to spend the next 30 years with her.

She looks at him: She will not commit herself to someone merely taking pity on her.

In late morning chilly sunlight, he wonders why he found her so lovely that first night. She wonders why she found him so charming. And they each wonder: How do I get out of this alive?

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