Dawn finished her performance art piece in the tiny gallery off Hollywood Boulevard and walked straight out the door, at the back of the “stage” onto the street. She hoped an abrupt departure would give the piece some kind of austerity, or something. Mostly she was just nervous and glad to be out of there. This art-scene crowd, with their lopsided outfits and dour faces, were a harder audience than fashion people. In the past, when she performed for photographers and journalists, on runways at fashion shows—it was a whole other story. She wouldn’t leave the catwalk without milking it, tossing off one of her signature poses, like looking at a pretend watch while waiting for another model to finish a turn.
But that was then. Since she hadn’t wanted to wind up like some of her over-30 model colleagues, married to rich older men, she had ended up like the other half of them--broke, without a marketable skill. Acting hadn’t worked out, as the past year living on credit cards had proved. There was money to be made in art, she figured. She had certainly spent enough of her money on paintings and sculptures, which she was now selling off to pay her mortgage.
Cars bounced to the beat. Gaggles of girls skittered in heels to the entrance of yet another club. Hollywood seemed so young and alive compared to the stale atmosphere inside the gallery. But then she turned down an alley to make a shortcut to her car, and it was silent and hyper-real like a vacant film set. She could hear water dripping and its echo. There were murky puddles left from a recent rain. She liked that about L.A.—the unexpected juxtapositions, the calm eye within a neighborhood’s social storm. It gave her a feeling that she could duck her bad luck, reverse her financial spiral. There was always a pocket of air, a trap door through which she could escape.
Something in a doorway fell over. It was human. Dawn’s instinct brought her to it rather than away from it. It was a girl with sores on her face and pee-smelling clothes. Someone who was actually worse off than her.
“My baby! Save my baby!”
The girl’s crotch was soaked dark. It came off red on Dawn’s beige dress. This is my performance art, Dawn thought, feeling a saintly bolt of energy course through her. I must document this. Dawn tried to lift her, and the girl stood up and started walking wobbly on her own.
“Can I bring you to a clinic?’ Dawn said, following her. “Or an emergency room?”
“I’m OK,” the girl said, almost offended. She was very young, cute underneath the blotches.
The girl was still in the bathroom by the time Dawn had washed and dried her clothing. She hadn’t come out even after Dawn had prepared some food for them. Dawn knocked on the bathroom door. She couldn’t remember the girls’ name. Ashley? Amber?
“Hey,” Dawn said. No response. Dawn turned the door handle—it was open—and saw the girl conked out in a bath of bright red. “Shit!” Dawn flung her hand up and down as if they were on fire. Maybe a hot bath wasn’t the right thing to do for someone hemorrhaging.
“I’m OK,” the girl said.
“You’re scaring me,” Dawn said, hoisting her up and throwing a towel around her.
“It felt so good, I didn’t want to move.”
“Well, you have to go to a doctor, because you’re bleeding,” Dawn said.
“It’s a miscarriage,” the girl said, squinting her eyes as Dawn rubbed the towel over her hair. “It’s finished. I’ve had one before.”
“Here,” Dawn said, placing the girl’s hands on the towel.
Dawn left, returning with her digital camera and the girl’s clothing. She hoped the girl hadn’t pulled the drain on the red bathwater yet. She found the door closed again. When she tried to open it, it stuck. The girl had fainted behind it.
Dawn sat on her nubby yellow couch and breathed deeply, as she had been instructed to by the life coach she could no longer afford. The inhalations worked. She remembered Judy, an old friend from college.
“Nice place,” Judy said, cracking her knuckles. She used to do this in women’s studies class, so much so that the teacher had to ask her to stop. Back then—a decade ago--Judy had long, frizzy hair and covered her earth-mother figure with flowing hippie clothing. Now she was in pale turquoise hospital scrubs, and had lost a lot of weight. Her hair, prematurely grey, was cut in a nondescript bob.
“I was so happy you’re listed in the phone book,” Dawn said, fiddling with the camera strap and resisting the urge to take self-portraits. That’s so quaint.”
Dawn didn’t know what Judy was doing to the girl, what she was giving her. She looked at the guest bedroom door and thought back to college days.
In school, everyone had thought Judy was a dyke. She had presented a term paper positing that queers are superior to straights. Because gays don’t have children, the argument went, they continue to develop their intellectual faculties. She cited a scientific study in which IQs went down in people after they had given birth to children and started tending to them. The class laughed when Judy claimed that straight people were mammals tricked by nature to procreate, and doomed to self-annihilation. “People pollution” results in environmental pollution, she claimed, the source of disease and wars over dwindling resources. The inevitable concern that humanity would die out if people practiced more birth control was dispatched with the notion that humankind’s numbers would in fact increase when people produced fewer children. “A woman in Africa with nine children doesn’t add to world population when they all have AIDS,” Judy said. “When women are freed up to devote themselves to creative, scientific and political endeavors, they will find solutions to man-made ills such as war and preventable disease. Thus fewer people will need to have children in order to replenish the population.”
“She’ll be fine,” Judy said, pulling off hygienic gloves. “Can she sleep here overnight?”
Dawn nodded, motioning to a wastebasket in the corner of the room. “Hungry?”
Dawn reheated the dinner she’d made for Ashley/Amber. “It seems like a turnabout that now you’re helping women have babies,” she said.
“Well, ‘women’s health’ is a euphemism for ‘abortion provider,’ Judy said, digging in. I was doing it at school, you know.”
“Providing abortions to girls too scared to go to the clinic,” Judy said, chewing with her mouth open. “Or too dumb to get there before the second trimester.”
“Before you became a registered nurse?”
“My mom taught me how. She was a midwife in Appalachia and she knew all these hillbilly techniques. She used common household products.”
“Well, let’s see what you got.” Judy wiped her mouth, got up and walked to the kitchen. Still chewing on a piece of bacon, she poked through cupboards and closets and found three ingredients she said could be combined effectively. “And if you use a good old-fashioned douche bag,” she said, holding a bottle of Lestoil, “you don’t risk puncturing the uterus.”
“So the chemicals do it,” Dawn said, thinking about her performance art.
“Yeah. Quite painful, but it works. Now, of course, I do standard D & Cs.”
Dawn couldn’t remember the last time she’d stayed up all night talking. The darkness of night turned her home into a vacuum, with no views out its many windows. She found herself admitting her money problems. She felt better when Judy told her of their classmates who had died, suffered accidents, gone through acrimonious divorces, been victims of crime.
“Wow,” Dawn said, looking around her home and its candy-colored ‘50s furniture. “We’re the luckiest ones.”
“Not really,” Judy said. She then lay out her own drama: the reason she was so thin was because she’d inherited her father’s degenerative disease.
“As usual, I’m not trendy enough,” she said. “My disease is so rare no one wants to study it, much less find a cure. The only good thing about it is that it has given me clarity. Now, thoughts of a nice house”—she waved her hand around Dawn’s living room—“or a retirement, even a relationship—all that has fallen away, and I am left with a clear sense of purpose.”
Judy shot her a mischievous look. “Go out in a blaze of glory.”
After their meal, they checked in on the girl, who was sleeping soundly.
Judy shook her head. “I used to think men were holding women back,” she said. “But now I know it’s women themselves.”
“I don’t know that I agree.”
“All boils down to having kids,” Judy said. “Women will not take power if they continue bearing soldiers for the enemy.”
Dawn stopped in the hallway. Judy hadn’t softened, like so many of their formerly radical friends. Dawn turned around to face Judy. “Sonja Johnson.”
Judy’s eyes widened. “Yes. Sonja Johnson.”
Dawn’s energy level went from 33 to 45 rpm. “My piece tonight was inspired by Sonja! And no one got it! This!—“ she went to the bookcase and pulled out From Housewife to Heretic. “When she’s at the playground with her four kids and she turns to the woman on the bench next to her and says—“
Judy jumped in: “’Isn’t motherhood terrible?’”
In the morning, the girl was fine, just like Judy said she would be. By then, Dawn and Judy had rekindled the fire of their college feminism. If riot grrl was third wave feminism, well, they had conceived the fourth. The duo sent the girl off after forcing her to eat breakfast. They never learned if it was Ashley or Amber.
The Church of Baby Jesus sat on a sleepy stretch of Silver Lake Boulevard. Inside, it was like something out of the American south, with old wood architecture and rustic furniture. The homey atmosphere stopped at the basement, where buzzing fluorescent light bounced abrasively off the pockmarked linoleum floor. Posters on the wall showed gestating fetuses—smiling.
Judy and Dawn took seats on folding chairs. Dawn had fashioned a fake belly out of a throw pillow bound with a strip of fabric. With the baggy sweater she wore over it, it looked like a realistic fifth-month pregnancy. But she was waddling like she was in her ninth month. It bothered Judy how goofy Dawn was acting. It reminded Judy of Dawn’s outbursts in Feminist Literature class—the way Dawn would argue over something because she just wanted to command attention.
A dozen or so girls and women stood around a table, scarfing donuts and orange juice. They all looked like they needed a bath, and that life was clobbering them.
The educator came in, a big woman in a green velour sweatsuit and an “I Love Jesus” tote bag. She stood in front of the chairs and cleared her throat.
“Life begins at conception,” she said, loudly, which prompted the girls to snag napkinfuls of food and take seats. The lecture began. When she wasn’t playing with her curly black hair, the educator fingered her red eyeglasses, which hung on a tether around her neck.
The girls took it in, munching slowly and nodding.
She’s good, Dawn thought. She doesn’t get too far into God so much as ethical guilt, personal torture. She threw in Spanish expression here and there, pandering to the room’s predominant demographic. She was now wrapping up by outlining the host of medical freebies available to the girls.
Dawn raised her hand.
“Yes, dear. What’s your name?”
“And have you named your baby yet?”
“It’s not a baby!” Dawn said, standing and raising her voice, turning to the women in the chairs, electrifying the air. “It’s a blob of mucous! And if you get rid of it, with a safe and legal abortion by a licensed provider, like this one here, you can be free to live your life without this albatross around your neck.”
Dawn indicated to Judy and started passing out business cards to Judy’s clinic.
“Now wait a minute, here,” the educator said in an octave higher than her lecture. She grasped at the business cards, which Dawn continued to pass out. “Get out! Leave at once!”
Judy jumped up and tried to get between Dawn and the educator so Dawn could continue her rant. The educator lunged for her purse and fumbled for her cell phone.
“Are your husbands and boyfriends really going to provide their share of childcare?” Dawn cried, as if she were addressing an arena. “Wouldn’t you rather be free to go where you choose and do whatever you please, whenever you want? Do you know that raising a child costs $20,000 a year? You could be in school learning a profession instead of changing diapers and cleaning vomit. Don’t you want good jobs?”
“You trippin’,” one of the girls said, walking out. The educator followed, yelling, “Security! Security!” and punching 911 into her phone. Judy didn’t know what to do, so she slinked back into her seat. When Dawn was finished, Judy robotically handed out more business cards, though they were already scattered on the women’s laps and on the floor. “I am a licensed abortion provider,” she managed to say before following Dawn out of the room. “I am offering free services for anyone here who calls my beeper number on the card.”
Dawn’s voiced echoed in the hall as they fled, “Abort! It’s never too late!”
The two raced towards Dawn’s car but, seeing a bar open its doors, ducked in as if eluding police.
“So,” Dawn said, beaming as she sat on a stool. “What did you think?”
Judy shook her head, dazed. She checked her beeper.
“What did you think of my speech?” Dawn said. “I went off the script and was channeling the rage and pain of a million regretful mothers.”
“I was so wigged out I didn’t even hear it.”
Dawn shook her head. “We should have videotaped it. This is a movement, Jude. The artistic aspect of it cannot be underestimated.”
Though Judy felt Dawn’s vanity was speaking, she had to agree. John Waters, Andy Warhol and Le Tigre had formed her worldview more than Sonja Johnson and Betty Friedan.
Neon beer signs went on one by one as the bartender flicked their switches.
“Shall we?” Dawn asked.
“Two Champagnes,” Dawn told the bartender.
“Ok then, sparkling wine,” Dawn joked.
The guy didn’t smile.
“Shot of tequila,” Judy said.
“Now we’re talking,” he said.
“If you’re going to drink, might as well get straight to the point,” Judy said.
Dawn rubbed her bulging belly.
“How about a lemon drop, can you do that?”
“Coming right up.”
Two hours and four drinks later, Judy looked around and noticed the bar had almost filled up. With women.
“How about that,” she said. “Right next to a church.”
Dawn slurred, “Nothing says ‘I’m the boss of me’ more than getting plastered before noon.”
“I don’t know,” came a voice behind her. “A pregnant lady falling off her stool says it pretty good.”
Dawn and Judy swiveled around. The woman blew cigarette smoke in their faces. She was a short blonde in a cropped top. And she was pregnant. For real.
“So I see you’ve heard about it,” the woman said, offering cigarettes. Dawn took one, but didn’t inhale when she smoked. Judy checked her beeper. Nothing yet.
“Heard about what?” Dawn said.
“Very funny,” the girl said. Her upturned nose and freckles made her look quite young, but her generous application of mascara and eyeliner gave her a hard look. To the bartender, she said, “Usual.” She then turned to the door, where a burst of light announced the arrival more people from outside.
“Brendita! Sallita! We’ve got some new recruits. This is…”
“Dawn and Judy,” Dawn said, indicating with her cigarette.
“Dawnita and Judita,” the blonde said. “Party officially started.”
The girls had been silhouetted from the back when they arrived, but once the door swung all the way shut, the swell of their bellies became visible. They, too, were pregnant.
“How far along?” Brendita asked Dawn. Dawn giggled.
“Five months,” Judy said.
“Oh,” Sallita said, looking from Judy to Dawn and back again. “And are you one of those alternative couples?” She made air quotes with her fingers.
Judy copyied the gesture. “No.” But why wouldn’t the woman think so? This was, after all, a dyke bar that doubled as a speakeasy for pregnant women.
“Coffee,” Brendita said to the bartender. Her friends looked at her disdainfully. “They won’t even let me have that at the house.” She lived with her parents, she explained.
“It’s out of control!” Sallita said. “Some bitch at school came up and pulled my cigarette out of my mouth! I would have decked her if I wasn’t so fucking tired all the time.”
Dawn was in her element. Her beauty was a natural magnet. She preened under the attention, getting off on flexing her acting muscles by pretending to be pregnant, pretending to live the same pushed-down life these women lived. Judy retreated, rolling her shot glass on its rim. Thinking. Plotting.
Dawn walked over to the jukebox and picked some songs. Judy didn’t know the first one, but most of the women in the bar seemed to, the way they bounced in their seats and sang along. Performer that she was, Dawn turned around, backlit by the jukebox’s candy-colored neon, and started dancing. Judy popped up and grabbed her, turning Dawn’s solo performance into a clunky tango.
“You’re getting fucked up,” she hissed. “Your stomach is all off to the side!”
Dawn was more sober than she’d been letting on. They finished the tango and both slinked off the bathroom.
“What’s a condom machine doing in a dyke bar?”
“Focus, Dawn. Eyes on the prize.”
Judy’s beeper vibrated. But it was her mother.
“Listen, none of the girls from this morning has called,” Judy said. “I’m disappointed.”
Dawn splashed cold water on her face. “Cool down. I have an idea.”
It was the same idea Judy had been forming. Fourth wave.
“If you can save just one life,” Dawn said.
“From happening in the first place,” Judy said.
“Lost cause,” Dawn said.
“Sallita,” Judy concluded. “Remember how she said she was going to have to quit school, even though she’s on a scholarship?”
Judy said, “When you were talking to her, telling her to stay in school, I was fantasizing that she would graduate and go on to study the disease I have.”
Dawn pursed her lips. “She’s pretty big. Think she’s too far along?”
“There’s no such thing.”
Judy left to get supplies from her pharmacist buddy at work, so she never learned how Dawn enticed Sallita back to her house. The sun had set by the time they met back there, making the place once again a sort of fishbowl. Their movement reflected back at them in the windows. Dawn knew better than to record this event, but she was glad to catch glimpses of herself in the windows. For once she was doing something that mattered.
Sallita fell asleep quickly; she was drunk to begin with.
“Ironic that we’re using the date-rape drug,” Dawn said, helping Judy pull off Sallita’s bleached jeans.
“It’s a cocktail, there was more than just Rohypnol.”
Judy laid out the tools she’d brought, and asked Dawn to—what else?--boil some water and get some towels.
“For an abortion?”
Judy shot her a look. “We want the mother to live.” When Dawn returned, Judy was standing above the girl and shaking her head.
“I don’t want to risk this,” she said.
“It’s too late to turn back!” Dawn said, shrill. “You said you do this all the time!”
“Shh! What I mean is, I don’t want to go in and cut it up. It could damage the girl too much.” She leaned over and laid out towels under and around Sallita.
“Scalpel,” she said. Dawn couldn’t help giggling nervously.
“I’m going to do a C-section.”
“Have you done that before?”
“We need more towels.”
Judy cut a big smile under the girls’ stomach.
Blood spurted in all directions like a sprinkler.
“Oh! God! Shit!” Dawn cried.
“Shut up! It’s normal! Get more towels!”
Dawn paced and shook her hands up and down. “What should I do? Can I help?”
“You can calm down and wipe up the blood.”
Dawn approached, then recoiled at the carnage, whimpering.
“This is normal,” Judy repeated. “It’s getting all over, so clean up.”
“Take it out of here,” Judy said.
Dawn ran to the bathroom and dry-heaved. She splashed water on her face and looked in the mirror. “This is normal,” she said, repeating Judy. She took a deep breath. “This is my art.” She threw back her shoulders and walked back into the living room. The air was so full of the smell of blood, of innards, that she felt she was walking through liquid.
“Bit of a problem,” Judy said, pulling a football-sized ball of goo from Sallita’s mangled stomach. “She was further along than she looked.” Judy wrapped the blob in a towel and suctioned mucous from its nose with a small plastic bottle.
A second followed. It felt like a decade.
Judy, with a quizzical look on her face, held the thing in her left arm and, with her right hand, tapped the mucky feet sticking out.
The baby cried. It seemed to shatter the air, reverse the course of everything, alter every molecule in the universe.
Judy, in a daze, held it a few inches towards Dawn. “Well. Hurry. Wipe it down. I have to cut the cord and get the placenta.”
Dawn had never held a child this small. But she instinctively took it, marveling at the small precision of its mouth, its nose, its walnut-sized hands. Slowly she dabbed at the goop on the baby’s skin.
To her surprise, the baby stopped bawling. It looked up at her. Dawn felt tears fall down her face. The innocence of the little thing made her feel that her entire soul was being washed clean. Everything else fell away: where she was, what she was doing, who was in the room. She felt a force field of energy wrap around herself and the baby.
Some time after the baby fell asleep, Dawn look up to see Judy lying on her back on the living room couch, tears rolling silently down her face into her ears. She was wrapped in a towel, too, apparently having undressed and bathed.
“What?” Dawn said.
“She’s fine,” Judy said. “I am wrecked.”
“We’ve been ignoring how much trouble we could get in.”
“I’m keeping the baby.”
Judy sighed. “I know.”
“I think, given the danger here, I think we should go our separate ways. What do you think?”
“I can’t think. I can’t think on the spot the way you do. I can act but I can’t think.”
“Ok. Go. I love you.”
Judy rose and walked slowly to the door.
“Jude,” Dawn said. “It’s a girl.”