TW: This story contains allusions to domestic violence, child abuse, and abortion.
He went back to smoking before I did.
I showed up outside the clinic one morning with my customary black coffee and bran muffin. He was standing next to the motorcycle I told him he could buy when he turned fifty. There was a half-done Parliament in his hand. I expected him to toss it when he saw me pulling up, but he kept right on puffing. That was how I knew he’d had a bad day.
“Are they back again,” I asked, receiving a slight nod in response. Jeff isn’t much of a talker, but he has a variety of nods that I can decipher with ease after thirty-four years of marriage. He started showing up to walk women in before I did. He gets to a lot of things before I do. I like to think first. I ponder. I process. Then, I show up. Usually by the time I get there, Jeff’s already blazed a path for me. He’s the explorer in the relationship. He’s the risk-taker. He was the one who read about the clinic on James Street needing volunteers to walk women past protesters so they can access the services the clinic provided. There was no way to prevent the protesters from yelling things out or harassing people, but shelter could be provided in the form of another person. Jeff mentioned wanting to volunteer.
“Really,” I said, reflecting on the fact that my husband has never shown an interest in politics or social issues of any kind. While I’ve always found him to be a deeply moral person, that morality seems grounded in a deeper sense than anything of this world.
He demonstrates his values in the way he raised our children with firm language but never violence the way my parents raised me. He displays it in how tenderly he moves through life. He shows care with both living things and objects. I see him taking time throughout his day to stop and be silent.
For most of his life, he was a carpenter. When my sister met him, she remarked that there was something Christ-like about him. I dismissed that as her doing her traditional jab at any guy I liked, but as time went on, I could see that the joke might have manifested into something real. That was why when Jeff asked me if he should grow a beard in honor of his fiftieth birthday, I told him to buy a motorcycle instead.
Although I’m not all that religious, I can respect the teachings of Jesus. I just don’t have any interest in being married to someone who looks like him.
He began volunteering a few months before I did. Admittedly, I only started doing it so I could understand what the experience was like for him. He’d come home after walking in women for several hours and immediately retire to his woodshop. He’s no longer a full-time carpenter, but he still creates as a means of catharsis. He’ll come into the living room every now and again while I’m watching some show about people with too much money and show me a small cabinet or a jewelry box he made out of oak or maple.
“That’s nice,” I’d say, “But now you’re going to have to buy me some jewelry.”
He laughs and tells me I should try not to kill any more brain cells with the trash I watch on television. This is our relationship. We tease. We tug at each other. It’s how we remind ourselves that our love is tough. It can take a little push and pull.
When I suggested joining him to walk the women in, he looked concerned. I assured him that I had done my time fighting the good fight over the years. My sister and I had attended pro-choice rallies every chance we could when we were younger. I told him that people screaming bad words at me or showing me grisly photos on cardboard would not break the precious petals off my stem. He knew better than to suggest telling me to stay home. I may take my time deciding to do something, but once I decide, there’s no talking me out of it. He said if I was going to volunteer, I should take the shift after his since they were hurting for people. I suspected he just wanted me there after the bulk of the protesters were gone, but I agreed to work the later hours anyway. You can only ask the people who care about you to worry so much, and then you need to take a few steps back. Somewhere in there is a theory about marriage and compromise, but I’d rather not look too hard at it.
I got out of my car at the clinic and instead of chasting Jeff for smoking again, I asked him to give me one from his pack. He looked surprised since I quit before we were married and I’ve only snuck a few here and there over the years after either good sex or bad spaghetti.
“If it’s going to be a bad night,” I said, “I might as well kick it off myself.”
He handed me the cigarette and then, like a gentleman, lit it for me in a way that can only be sexy if the man you’re with looks right at you as he’s doing it. All these years, and my guy still gets my heart going like we’re back at the dive bar where we met, both of us trying to look like we weren’t that into the other one and secretly praying that we would never be apart again.
Intruding through this nostalgia was the sound of two specific protesters Jeff had warned me about when I signed up. I’d only ever encountered them once, but Jeff saw them nearly every time he volunteered. They were a husband and wife. The man looked like Gollum from Lord of the Rings--no hair minus a few stragglers at his temples, beady eyes, and bony fingers that were always clutching a Bible. The woman looked like your typical PTA mother with dyed blonde hair, a light sweater, and perfect teeth. She was holding onto a stack of pamphlets that talked all about adoption and other alternatives to abortion that sidestepped any recognition of trauma, assault, or what happens after you decide to have the baby if you don’t have the resources or mentality to care for it. These people were no different than the guys I used to see back at the bar where I met Jeff. They wanted one thing from you, and once they got it, they didn’t care if they ever saw you again.
All the protesters at the clinic were some form of nasty, but these two were especially heinous. They saw nothing wrong with calling women making the toughest decision of their lives some of the most repugnant names I’ve ever heard. They damned them to hell and begged for consideration as though dangling Paradise in front of someone was all you had to do in order to treat them as though they were less than human.
Forgetting that not every woman who came to the clinic was there for an abortion, I once saw them castigate a woman in her forties as she was leaving. They screamed “Murderer!” at her not realizing she had just received bad news regarding a recent breast exam. I myself am not prone to violence, but the rage I felt at that couple was enough to power a missile silo. I would walk women past them and each time I’d make sure to catch their eye and give them what my Daddy used to call the “Just you wait” look. I wasn’t sure what they’d be waiting for, but I wanted to put a little fear into them the way they were putting it into others.
It seemed to work on Gollum a bit, but that woman looked right back at me and smiled. She was enjoying this. This wasn’t about saving anybody. This was about giving her an outlet. She needed somewhere to let loose all the hate in her heart. I should have felt bad for her. I decided I should reserve all my compassion for the women I was walking with, and I’d wrap my arm around them a little tighter as I led them to their cars.
“What did they do today,” I asked Jeff, trying to get as much of that tar and chalk into my lungs as possible before my shift started.
He shook his head and let out a puff of smoke that looked like a storm cloud.
“There was a girl walking in,” he said, “Couldn’t have been more than fifteen. Took the bus here. Crying the minute she got out. I started walking her in. The guy told her she was going to burn. The woman told her she’d be putting a curse on herself. That she’d never have another child. The girl started crying so hard I thought she was going to fall down and I’d have to pick her up and carry her the rest of the way.”
I looked across the street to the spot where the protesters had to stand. Gollum was shouting something to the small crowd gathered there. A goulash of riffraff with too much time on their hands and too much interest in other people’s business. The woman was on the phone with someone laughing about something. Laughing. I could have walked over there and shoved that phone right past her cheap dimestore lipstick and down her windpipe. When you’re raised in violence, you can always go back to it just as sure as you can always ride a bike. I could have knocked out Mr. and Mrs. Gollum with four punches or less and slept as soundly as a newborn that night.
Jeff wasn’t raised the way I was. He didn’t know what to do with hatred. It wasn’t that he’d never seen it before, but he never grew to understand it. I was glad about that. Better to be ignorant to it than involve yourself in it. That’s how I always thought. My sister never learned to love a man unless that love expressed itself as harm. Somehow I got lucky enough to go the opposite way. I’m not sure I could have handled seeing Jeff even so much as raise his voice. Although he was over six foot two, covered in ink, and had more piercings than a Pagoda Hut, he was also as still as a spring lake.
Until all of this.
He finished his cigarette and told me to be careful. I let him know that I wasn’t afraid of Gollum and I sure as hell wasn’t afraid of that banshee he called a wife.
“That’s not what I meant,” he said, “Be careful not to let them get to you. Remember that Buddhist monk who was kidnapped and tortured for years? Right after he was released, he said ‘Thank goodness. I was almost starting to get angry.’ Don’t let them get you angry, okay? Not if you can help it. It’s not going to do you any good, and it’s not going to do the women you’re here to help any good either. You just walk them in. That’s what we do.”
We both tossed our butts to the ground and stubbed them out. I pulled him to me by his chin and gave him a nice deep kiss. Our collective breath was mostly smoke, some coffee, and that old familiarity I never get sick of no matter how many times we’re together. I don’t know if I’m a good person, but I know a good person loves me. I can only hope it’s like adding seltzer to a stain. Maybe some of the bad dissipates.
Jeff took off on his bike and I made my way to the entrance to wait for the next girl or woman to show up. When they did, I’d follow the procedure. Speak softly to them. Try to distract them from the aggression coming from the other side. Try to convey warmth. Try to convey kindness. Get them inside safely and then get them back to their cars. I couldn’t stop the experience from staying with them. I couldn’t stop the pain from settling. I could only hope to lessen all of it. I could give them a face to remember years later. Something to give them hope that not all people spend their time trying to install shame into what’s already a tragedy.
When I walked in years ago, I didn’t have anybody walking with me. There was no Jeff there. Nobody like me either. My sister had offered to go with me, but I told her I could do it on my own. I didn’t tell her it was her boyfriend that got me pregnant. She always did pick the cream of the crop. If I stop and think about it, I can recall how cold it was that day even for early September. I think about the leaves crunching under my feet. I think about how tightly I wrapped the scarf around my neck that my ninth grade history teacher had made for me as a Christmas gift. I remember being cold and I don’t even remember feeling truly warm again. That’s not to say I regret anything. It’s just to say I was going to wind up different no matter what--even by age or circumstance. Who can say?
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Jeff in the parking lot down the street next to the Price Rite. He had parked his bike, and he was sitting there looking my way. Probably thought I couldn’t spot him or that I’d be too focused on the task at hand to stare too far away. I knew then that he was going to be there all night. Just in case I needed him.
It could have bothered me, I guess, thinking about my husband acting he had to keep an eye on me. That’s probably why I didn’t think about it.
There’s a lot I don’t think about these days.
That’s why I quit smoking the first time.
All that standing around, breathing in, and breathing out.
Just gives you too much damn time to think.