It’s social time on the psych unit, and as we play cards, I tell the 16-year-old girl next to me what to expect with her abortion. A thought peeks around the corner of my mind—my mother was this girl’s very age when she had me. I examine her skin. It’s luminous, flawless. It’s a detail I’ll recall years from now when I understand the fact that she is an hallucination, an aberrant sensory experience—a living dream. Here, and in my memory, she fills up space with her presence. And yet everything I could ever wish to know about her lives within my own mind. She’s so young, it hurts to look at her.
I describe the clinic but don’t tell her it’s run down, that the fluorescent lighting will illuminate the waiting room like a morgue, that when it’s quiet, she’ll hear a high-pitched electronic whistle, that the buzzing will contribute to the surreality of her lonely situation. I warn her about protesters and use generic words like graphic and manipulative and deceptive because I can’t bring myself to tell this girl how good Christian people will spew rage through bullhorns as they parade-pray gargantuan photos of mutilated fetuses. Instead, I mention the clinic’s bulletproof glass at the entrance and detail the workup routine a typical patient hears.
“Yes, it will hurt,” I confide when she asks. I wish I could pay for her anesthesia, but I’m on Medicaid and can’t imagine ever having enough money to fund other women’s abortions. I wish I could call the clinic director, and later I do, from the patient’s phone in the hallway. I want to say, hey, if this girl can’t afford Twilight, let me pay for it, but I don’t. I advise the director to expect her, to attend to the girl herself, not hand her over to an artless intern. That’s the word I use, artless. I twirl the phone cord and think about how this unit could use some art therapy. The director offers me my old job. She says I was the best abortion counselor she ever trained. I’m not exactly sure when I’m available to work because my voluntary admission to the psychiatric hospital feels supremely involuntary. I don’t like how the olanzapine affects me but I’ve learned about the consequences of non-compliance from other patients. Besides, I have an infant at home and it’s time for my Narcotics Anonymous meeting. NA’s where I exchange my recent experiences with blood clots and intense anxiety and expansive psychosis for harrowing ones about opioid addiction.
I ask the girl if she’s sure. I have no idea what’s going on with her, except she is here like me—slotted in among the sympathetic heroin addicts on the dual diagnosis unit due to a lack of beds on the women’s ward. She’s the youngest on the floor, everyone’s little sister, and years later when I’m visiting the children and adolescent unit I’ll wonder why she wasn’t admitted there until my brain stutters, and I’ll remind myself that she’s not real. But then and there, what preoccupies me is whether her consent is diminished or wholly subsumed. There’s no way to know how medicated she is or if she comprehends what she’s agreed to. I don’t tell her police will escort her to the clinic in shackles all the way to the threshold of the procedure room. I don’t tell her the director will have to shame the officers into removing her shackles the same way I did for another patient in similar circumstances. I don’t tell her that no woman should have an abortion handcuffed and in chains. It hasn’t occurred to this girl that she will be treated like a criminal for being sick. If she is. Ill, that is—mentally ill. Could be that she’s just a teenager. And I wonder, where is her mother? Does her mother know what’s going on? My hallucination never receives visitors.
The girl continues to play cards with me and appears relaxed; she makes eye contact with me, makes small talk, smiles. She asks me what I know about electroconvulsive therapy, and everything I know is literary. She shows me a pamphlet with dated graphics, and I’m reminded of ads from medical journals in the 1960s. Do I know anything about it? Should she do it? I tell her to try everything else first. I think of Sylvia Plath and how maybe some Prozac could have saved her brilliant life and I wonder if something will save my lackluster one. I hear a baby crying and I see a couple of the staff dragging the struggling girl away to solitary where I hear patients lie on gurneys in restraints. My milk should be letting down, but it’s not. I try to ignore the baby’s cries and concentrate on the girl because she is here again sitting beside me, nodding her head and saying “yeah” or calling me April with smooth vowels like my mother’s voice, saying my name exactly the way my mother does. Her hair is long with soft-looking curls. She has freckles and hazel eyes like my mother. My baby cries and cries and my heart races. I can’t breathe because my baby continues to cry and cry and cry. Her need me fills up, floods my body. I can’t reach her. I shout to the nurse across the room, interrupting the girl, “Is my baby here? Where is my baby? Is this real?” How can any of this be real?
Once again, I am alone. The nurse points to the television and says, “It’s real.”
April Bradley is a Durham, North Carolina-based writer. Her fiction and essays appear in Blink Ink, CHEAP POP, Heavy Feather Review, Narratively, Smokelong Quarterly, and numerous others. Her work has been honored by residency support from Vermont Studio Center and Rivendell Writer’s Colony. She serves as an associate editor for fiction at Pidgeonholes and as a submissions editor at SmokeLong Quarterly. April is a recent Pushcart Prize, Best of Microfiction, and Best of Small Fictions nominee, and a graduate of Yale Divinity School. Find her online at aprilbradley.com and on Twitter at april_bradley