Biographical Non-Fiction posted May 15, 2018

This work has reached the exceptional level
Growth sometimes comes at a high price.

The Cleaning

by RFL

The author has placed a warning on this post for violence.

The year was 2006 and I wanted to see the Bodies Exhibit in New York ever since it had opened. The reviews were great and I had always enjoyed my anatomy and physiology courses in college. As a nurse and a professor at a New York university, I was busy with preparing boring lectures, which I believed did nothing more for students than provide time for them to check their emails and text messages. Moreover, I hated being a talking head and wished I could teach in the way I believed would engender learning; that is, students participating in solving real problems and then discussing potential solutions. But the classes were just too large -- 150 to 200 students per class.

I finally decided to take a day off from my usual homework of grading student papers or writing articles about how to better teach students who were only faces in a crowd, just to get out and leave behind all the papers in the wicker basket I kept next to the small computer table, which served as my office in the small one-bedroom east side apartment, I was renting.
What a breath of fresh life! Leaving the 'work' behind and experiencing something new for a change. The day was gorgeous, fall in New York, sixty degrees, sun shining, the colors of the leaves sending a message of transition. I was happier than I had been in a long time. I had been on my own for three years now, having left my husband whom I married in 1969 on the rebound. I know now that I never really loved him; not in the romantic way. He was a physician whom I met at work. He was 10 years older than I was, balding, overweight, but he reminded me of my father whom I loved dearly. I longed for love and security after what had happened in 1968. Fortunately, I had two wonderful children with him. Those children saved me from what might have been a severe depression. I tried to become that ideal mother one reads about in Woman's Day, giving my children disciplined love, supporting their goals, and just being there for them whenever they needed me. This I did while working part-time and earning a PhD. The children grew up to be fine people, my daughter a well-respected attorney and my son an independent producer of award winning documentary films. The immersion in my work and child rearing, not to mention training and caring for the family's golden retriever, for more than twenty years, filled most of my time and used a good deal of my energy, but I always felt a longing for a missing part of myself. One place in one of the chambers of my heart pumped the blood that kept my body and mind going, but lacked the luster that romantic love brings to one's soul.

After the children were on their own and our golden went to dog heaven, I felt as empty as a chalice without wine or a wafer without a host. I was separated from my first husband for 3 years now, needing to escape what I felt was my prison. I heard about online dating and gave it a try. After many dates, which I always found interesting but not keepers, I met an unusual man. Unusual because he understood me, because he was sincere, of good heart, and told me I was beautiful, special, and that he loved me. But he didn't know my secret. I was afraid that if I told him, he would stop loving me.

A couple of weeks before I went to the Bodies Exhibit, that beautiful man I had been dating, proposed to me. It felt so good having a wonderful lover who wanted to marry me. And my first book about how to improve the care of patients was just published. I was happier than I had been in a long time.
The first exhibit halls depicted human anatomy in its incredible forms and functions. One, which captured my attention, was of a male and female sculpture, both of which were the height of full human beings and showed cross sections of muscles on one half and skeletal configurations on the other. These inanimate creations were holding their hands out to each other in a rather engaging and longing human pose. To me, these were no longer inanimate sculptures of muscles, tendons and bones, but rather two human beings longing to touch each other. I could look past the muscles, tendons, organs, and bones to see human beings, and imposed my own feelings on the two bodies reaching out to one another. I felt this mimicked the new love I had found.

Wow, I thought, this is so cool. I can't believe that the exhibitors could capture such emotion in muscles and bones.

Another exhibit hall was devoted to fetal development -- how a tiny cell evolves into a living, breathing human being, a baby. Seeing the developing fetuses encased in glass jars like so much jelly or even the twin yolks I saw in cracked eggs from time to time, reawakened the guilt I had felt so many years ago when I found myself on a cold surgical table in Puerto Rico.
I started to replay that time in my life --1968: We were in Ronald's pretty messy apartment with dishes piled high in the sink and his books and papers strewn over the bedroom dresser, under and over the dust. We had been dating for a few weeks now. Ronald was a surgical resident at the hospital where I worked as a registered nurse. Because of his grueling schedule, sometimes being on call for 36 hours straight, I forgave the mess in his apartment, and even washed the growing mountain of almost moldy dishes I always found in his kitchen sink.

After getting a couple of glasses of cheap sweet white wine from the refrigerator (which I pretended to drink), we sat on the rented brown leather sofa, which made my thighs sweat because I was wearing a short skirt -- the trend of the day. I did not expect Ronald's next line:

"Look, Mim, I really like you, and we are having such good times together. Let's just get sex out of the way."

I was a bit taken back by the thought that sex was something to get "out of the way" in a relationship and did not know how to respond. Being a romantic, I longed for a different type of courtship, for one that evolved in its own right, one that was spontaneous, and that culminated for two people who loved each other in a perfect moment to share that love, not prescribed or set for a specific date or time, but one that just happened and was not planned, and certainly not something to "get out of the way". But wanting to please Ronald, I was quiet and hoped he would treat me well since this was my first time.

Ronald drew me toward him and kissed me. Not the best kiss I have ever had, I thought, but I also thought he had redeeming qualities. His way with his patients reminded me of the surgeon who had saved my life not too long ago from a ruptured ovarian cyst. Ronald took my hand and led me into the bedroom. He did not even wait until I was ready before he penetrated. I pleaded with him to use a condom, but his response was:

"Since you are a nurse, I thought you would be taking the pill."
"Wait, please wait, I'm not taking the pill. I can't because of my tendency to ovarian
cysts. You should understand that."
"Too late now, my dear."

I was a good looking and sexy woman: my hair was brown with highlights; my eyes were blue; I was slim and had an athletic build from my disciplined exercise routine. I had felt longings since I was ten years old when I started menstruating. Although I did not understand what I felt, other guys I dated had brought me to orgasm with touch and oral sex. I hoped this time would be different, special, better. When it was over, I did not feel love or lust -- just used. I didn't even enjoy it. Is this what I gave up my virginity for? Yet, I continued to date Ronald; he told me that he loved me. I wasn't sure about my feelings but was flattered that the well-respected chief surgical resident at the hospital where I worked chose me out of all the beautiful young nurses I worked with. Although I did not find Ronald physically attractive, and perhaps that is why the sex was not what I expected, his patients and the nurses loved him. He had a great calming voice and bedside manner with patients, not, however, when it came to romantic connections.

I was twenty-three and still lived with my parents who loved and supported my dream of becoming a nurse. They were working people; my father pressed clothes and worked in New York's famed garment district. My mother was a bookkeeper with a high school education who worked full-time so that the family could provide for their children's education. I had one younger brother. There were issues in the family that upset me frequently. My parents argued incessantly about how my dad's family treated my mom and my brother. I could not stand those arguments or the disarray of our home. I was smart and organized and so beginning when I was twelve years old, I would clean the house from top to bottom every couple of weeks to earn spending money. How I longed to have my own place so I could keep it neat, clean and polished; and not have to listen to incessant non-functional arguments that led nowhere.

Although I did well in school (the first of my maternal family to go to college) and had a good job as a nurse and also taught part-time in the evening, I could not seem to get up the courage to move out. My friends were marrying young and I had fears of being totally on my own. That situation made me ripe to think of marrying a young physician who would sweep me off my feet and love and care for me the way my parents had and moreover provide security.
Two months later driving in Ronald's car, I said, "I'm famished. Can we stop for
"Sure, let's go to McDonald's."
"Ronald, you know I don't eat that junk, and especially now."
"You are such a princess! What do you want?"
"Just to sit down at a nice restaurant, have a glass of wine, and talk."
"I don't have time. I have to get back to the hospital for surgery. What do you want to talk about?"
"Ronald, I wish I were a princess and had magical powers or something, but I don't."
"Spit it out, Mim."
"Can't you ever try to understand where I'm coming from?"

I was now becoming teary eyed and nauseous, and no longer wanted to eat. Was this the man I thought I loved, or at least was trying to love?

"Enough! What do you want to tell me?"
"I didn't want to tell you like this. Please try to understand what I need
"Why don't you try to understand that I have to get to the Hospital?"
"I thought you said that we would have this afternoon together."
"I thought we could, but Jason asked me to cover for him and I couldn't
"Oh, God, not today!"
"I thought you understood that my work comes first."
"Of course, our work is important. But sometimes, once in a purple moon, we need to just make time for each other."
"Okay, Mim, so what's the big deal?"
"Ronald, this IS important. I think I'm pregnant. So, there you have it; not how
I wanted to tell you."
"What makes you think that?"
"Are you kidding me? I am both a woman and a nurse, and I know that if I don't have my period for two months and I need a size C bra cup instead of a B, and get sick at thought of eating a MacDonald's hamburger, then I am most probably, 99 percent sure, that I am pregnant."
"Well, then, I will make an appointment with an OB-GYN I know to find out for sure."

I was reeling from this conversation. There was no hint of Ronald caring for me, nor of excitement about the possibility of having a child, which we created together. I was young and lacking confidence and wanted this relationship to work, so I went along with Ronald as I did the night we first had sex.

The appointment with the OB-GYN confirmed my diagnosis. I was 8 weeks pregnant. Driving back to Ronald's apartment, he broached the solution to "his" problem. He could not wait for a more suitable or even romantic place to have the conversation.
Two weeks later we were off to Puerto Rico where cleanings were legal just before Roe versus Wade established choice as an option for women in the United States.

The one-hour drive from San Juan to what Ronald told me was a GYN clinic seemed like an eternity. As the taxi passed what looked like cardboard shacks in greens, pinks, and purples with flat wooden boards for rooves and cheap patterned bedsheets covering cutout windows, I became more and more anxious. The properties surrounding these shanties were strewn with old tires, rusty wheel barrels, and outdoor plastic furniture literally on their last legs or no legs at all. Children with dirty feet, hands and faces were running barefoot in the road playing. Ratty looking "perros" crossed the roads without any thought to oncoming traffic. I loved children and animals; so, I hoped they both at least had enough to eat and drink. In the midst of my increasing anxiety about where in God's name I was going and what would await me, I thought about the poor children and animals that lived in this poverty-stricken place -- one I had never seen before. Perhaps that helped.

And then, I started to realize where I was going. Oh, could Ronald be that callous! What kind of clinic could this be?

As the taxi pulled up to the clinic, my heart sank deeper than the depths of the Titanic, my favorite movie of all time. (I had seen both the 1953 version with Clifton Webb and Barbara Stanwyck and the 1958 TV version, called A Night to Remember.) This wasn't a clinic; it was one of those shanties -- a pink one, with a real thatched roof, which looked a bit cleaner than the others, and did not have decaying antiques or refuse in the front yard but was not what I envisioned as a safe place to have any kind of surgery. "Why am I doing this? Why can't I stop this? What is wrong with me?"

A nice looking fortyish gentleman with black hair and dark skin who Ronald told me was the physician and his female assistant, a twentyish Puerto Rican girl, who looked clean and presentable, both wearing not surgical scrubs, but isolation type gowns, greeted us. The physician told Ronald to wait in the front room, which looked like the living room of a second or maybe third-hand furniture outlet, not from the Salvation Army, but the Puerto Rican Salvation Sanitation System.

The physician and his assistant took me into the back room, the only other room in this abode, except the bathroom, which looked like another shanty room with one small cut out in the wall for a window covered with a printed cloth depicting birds and trees. My eyes were drawn to a cold looking metal examining table with stirrups on either side, a table like I had seen in gynecologic offices and operating rooms, but this one seemed more ominous, ready to not only destroy a part of me, but the entirety of what might have become my first beautiful baby. The table was covered with a thin beige mattress with blue stripes, which looked like some of those I had seen put on the curb of New York streets for trash pick-up. The mattress, which had felt the weight of many women, was covered with thin sheets of paper from a roller that consistently eliminated the sheaths of a world of silent secret sadness. This bed did not provide any promise of comfort from the hardness I felt growing in my heart.

The physician and his assistant both helped me onto the cold table. Not only did they put my feet in stirrups, but also put my hands in restraints that seemed like the handcuffs the police use to contain criminals.

"Why are you tying down my hands? Oh, God, please don't do this."
"We have to keep your hands immobile. We can't have you pulling out your I.V. or flailing around while we are working."

I was having second, third, fourth and even fifth thoughts about ending the pregnancy. My anxiety kept growing. I was in a different plane of experience than I had ever been. Why couldn't I assert myself? Was it too late? Or, was I acting as a scared child obeying a parent figure, unable to say, "No"?

Once on the table and strapped in, I looked to my left and saw a metal table with various instruments waiting to invade my private space. I saw a speculum, the instrument which would spread my vagina; and dilators, which would open the cervical opening to my uterus. And then I saw the curettes, which would clean out the contents of a fetus' safe home.

"Is that all this is," I thought, "a cleaning spree?" Then I looked to my left and saw the window. The curtain was pulled back to allow light into the death chamber, the only light that was available. And so, I saw the palm trees, not a New York gynecological experience, but one that reminded me once again of where I was and what I was doing.

I was really scared now; the palm trees didn't help, and I did not know what to expect. The first thing I felt was a needle in my arm, which was attached to tubing that would introduce intravenous infusions of hydration and medication into my system. The next thing I felt was an injection into my upper arm muscle.

"What are you giving me?"
"Medicine por el dolor."
"What is going to happen to me?"
"First, a local anesthetic into your cervix. Then we wait poco momentos for it to work."
"We insert instruments into cervix to stimulate contractions."
"Donde esta mi hombre? "
"Senorita, lo siento, pero el no quiere estar aqui."

OMG! What a chicken! I thought. He could have been in here if he had wanted
to -- Cowardly chicken with a little neck.

The injections into my cervix hurt like hell. I cried out, but nobody really heard or cared. I had made the decision to put myself through this cruel process. I could have terminated my relationship with Ronald many times when I felt something was not right. But I hadn't. So, I could only blame myself for what I was about to do and feel, physically and emotionally.

Then the cleaning began. The physician or whoever he really was inserted something cold and hard into my vagina and then into my uterus. The cramping was unbearable and I kept screaming for help.

"Oh, God, please stop, please. Don't do it."
"Too late, no podemos parar."

I was alone with myself at this important moment in my life.

The physician said he would give me more pain killer, and he did, but it was much too late. I had never experienced such pain. The thoughts going through my mind: Is this what giving birth is like? Well, if this kind of pain results in a new beautiful human being, then maybe it is worth it. But, if this kind of pain results in death and destruction whether actual or emotional, then what's the point?

It was done! I was crying inconsolably. They told me to remain on the examining table, albeit without my legs in stirrups or hands in handcuffs, for 30 minutes. Then, I had to get up and leave. I still had cramps and was bleeding. The assistant helped me up, gave me a pad to put into my underpants, and helped me get dressed.

Ronald had arranged for a taxi to pick us up at the prescribed time and place. We rode in silence back to the El San Juan Hotel. Being a physician himself, Ronald had brought all necessary intravenous equipment, bandages, antibiotics, and narcotics to care for me during what he predicted would be a two-day recovery at the hotel before heading home.

The taxi stopped in front of the hotel. As I got out, I saw a pool of crimson on the seat where I had been sitting and felt humiliated.

"Oh, Ronald, look. This is bad."
"No, Mim, it's okay. Just get out of the cab."
"How can we leave this stain here?"
"Just get out of the cab."
"How can I? I am bleeding? I can't walk. I will drip all the way to our room."
"I brought a towel in my bag. Just put this between your legs."

With a great deal of pain both emotionally and physically, I stepped out of the cab and tried to maintain an aura of calm and a presence of sophistication, walking with a towel between my legs, until we arrived at our hotel room. Once inside, Ronald told me to lie down in the bed and started an intravenous infusion to rehydrate me and gave me the initial dose of antibiotics, which I would need to complete in the next week.

I was weak, in pain, and wondering why I had agreed to all this. After all, it was Ronald's plan. He never asked me what I wanted. And I was so ashamed on many levels -- emotional, professional, and personal. I hated myself for allowing myself to be manipulated by a man into doing something I did not really want to do. Ronald had professed his love for me. What kind of love was that? If he really loved me, why would he not have married me and had our baby?

After two days of lying in bed in a Puerto Rico hotel room, only viewing the beach and ocean from the window, not the way I envisioned a beach vacation, I and Ronald were flying back to New York. Given the emotionally and physically exhausting experience, Ronald upgraded our return flight to first class so that I could rest more easily. There is a part of him that must care, I mused. We didn't talk much though. I was processing the whole experience. During the flight home to New York, I came to terms with my vulnerability, my need to please, and the important realization that I really did not love this egotistical, self-serving, controlling freak of a man.

There was a limo waiting to pick us up and take us back to Ronald's apartment. On the drive to his apartment, Ronald took my hand and looked into my blue, but bleary eyes and said:

"Mim, I love you so much. You are such a treasure. I want to spend the rest of my life with you."

I finally found the courage to speak my mind.

"Really, Ronald? I don't think so. If you really wanted to spend the rest of your life with me, why did you not tell me that before you had our child destroyed?"
"You know now is not a good time for a baby!" Ronald inserted.
"You bastard," I spit out contemptuously. "I thought I loved you. You were so good to your patients and lots of fun. But what we just went through in Puerto Rico shed a different light on everything."
"But...." Ronald sputtered.
"Don't interrupt me now. You never asked me what I wanted. The experience was horrible. I went through the pain -- you have no clue. It's like Candide by Voltaire. The basic premise is that you take the most negative experiences and make them positive. So, Ronald, while this experience has been so gut wrenching for me, I found the greatest lesson in it?"

Ronald shrugged his shoulders as if to say what is it?

I rolled my eyes. "Good-bye, Ronald." With that, I walked to the phone, called a cab, whirled around and walked out of his apartment and away from him for the last time.
That was a long time ago. Awakening from my reverie, I found myself in front of a case with a three-month old fetus. Although the head was larger than newborn babies' heads would be, it was well-formed. And while the arms, legs and beginning fingers and toes were still evolving, those appendages were well delineated. This was a growing beautiful human being, not something to be swatted as a fly. I asked this specimen floating in formaldehyde for forgiveness. There was no answer.

I finally realized I needed to forgive myself.


Share Your Story contest entry


So difficult to write this piece. But it was a catharsis. That is what memoirs are all about; is it not? And true to memoir genre, this is based on true experience, but endings can be changed. Can't they?
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