“The Men in Charge of Our Bodies” by Suzanne Roberts

Issue 18 / Summer 2019 / Abortion Ban Protest Special Issue

 

A group of men followed us down Broadway, the bustling honky tonk district in Nashville, Music City, U.S.A. They shouted to us: “Ladies, ladies, LAAADDDIIIIEES.”

We stopped on the street corner and asked what they wanted. Neon signs flashed above: Broadway Brewhouse, Betty Boots, Nudie’s Honky Tonk, AJ’s Good Time Bar. On the street, a drummer beat on a plastic bucket, hoping for tips. A sleeping man in army fatigues curled up next to a pit bull, who wore a little army hat of his own.

The group of men asked us where the best music was. My friend Wendy and I told them we weren’t locals, that we were old college friends on a southern road trip. “Like Thelma and Louise,” I said, “but we’re driving a rented Toyota Corolla and not a 1966 Thunderbird.” We all laughed.

They told us they were from Georgia, these five young men and a dad, who had taken the group of friends to Nashville to celebrate his son’s twenty-first birthday. We thought this was sweet, so we forgave the way they had shouted at us. The dad was about our age, late 40s, and looked like he could have stepped out of a Lands’ End catalog, and the boys seemed the typical preppy university types.

As a writer, I’m curious about the issues of a place, wanting to hear local views. Since I had been in Alabama all month at a writing residency, I had started asking locals what they thought about the recent abortion ban. I asked everyone I came across: the grocery store clerks, Lyft drivers, even people on the street, so I asked these men about Georgia’s abortion ban, also known by supporters as the “six-week heartbeat” law, even though a fetus doesn’t technically have a functioning heart until 22 weeks. The dad said he agreed with Georgia’s law and even Alabama’s, which proposes a near-complete ban on all abortions.

While I discussed the recent abortion laws with the dad and one of the other young men, Wendy talked to two of the young men. I couldn’t hear their discussion because of the honky tonk music. Two of the young men, who weren’t interested in talking to middle-aged women, went off to find another bar.

The dad told me that his mother nearly aborted him. He said conception “means life, that is, if you believe in God.” I said that was an either/or logical fallacy. I asked him what he thought about all the leftover embryos from IVF. Did he think it was wrong to destroy those, too?

“I’ve never thought about that before,” he said.

“According to your definition of human life, those are lives, too,” I pointed out.

He said he would have to think about that, and he always thought about what Jesus would do. I told him he should be careful not to create God in his own image.

He shook his head, said, “Of course not,” and then asked me if I was married, and I told him I was. He said, “I’m happily married, too. I’ve got a great wife. I probably don’t deserve her.”

I nodded. We had found a point of agreement.

The son’s friend told me that if a woman takes enough vitamin C, she can self-abort: “I bet you didn’t know that the vitamin C heats up the uterus, and the baby will die,” he said.

I told him I was not aware of such a fact.

Then this young man told me that he had an infant son, and though he didn’t get to see him much, he loved him just the same. He shouted, pointing at my face with his long index finger: “She tried to kill the baby with vitamin C.” Then he added, more quietly, “but it didn’t work, thank God.”

I nodded, told him I was not surprised. I was beginning to feel like Allen Funt would jump out from a nearby honky tonk, shouting, “Smile, You’re on Candid Camera!”

But this was no joke. These men, affluent and educated, were the prototype of those who currently control women’s bodies with a dangerous combination of privilege and ignorance.

People pushed by us on the street corner, dark shadows against the flashing neon lights in the shape of cowboy boots, lassos, and scantily clad cowgirls straddling guitars. The dad admitted that he didn’t personally know anyone who had an abortion, but he was sure women regretted having them.

It was hard getting a word in because he kept talking over me, but I managed to tell him that I had had an abortion, and I didn’t regret it. I regretted getting pregnant in the first place, but the abortion? It was one of the best decisions of my life.

At this point, I noticed the dad making eyes at me, and I knew I had to get out of there. Had this new knowledge of my abortion—something he would like to control in women—turned him on? Things seemed to change at this moment, from the friendly banter of tourists on a night out to something darker, something scary.

The dad told me he was really sorry that happened to me and then tried to place his hand on my shoulder and kiss my forehead. I flung my hand up to stop him. He grabbed my hand and kissed that instead. He was a man handsome enough that he had probably gotten away with this kind of behavior his entire life.

I pulled away, told him that many of the women he knows have had abortions, that one in four American women have had them, but women don’t go around talking about it, especially not in the South. I signaled to Wendy that it was time to go, and we started walking away, but they followed us, the dad restarting his loop about how his life had nearly been aborted, and that’s when I turned around, and I said, “Maybe she should have.”

He stopped his story when this registered and asked, “Should have what?”

“Should have had the abortion,” I said. By this point, I wanted to end the conversation with Mr. Lands’ End, to be rid of him, and I thought this would do it.

He put his hand over his heart, and called after me, “I’m a wonderful person with an amazing wife. I have great kids. All that would be gone.”

“The world would be fine without you,” I called, as Wendy and I hurried down the busy sidewalk.

They were still behind us, so we quickened our pace, and I told Wendy, “Louise shot that guy for a reason,” meaning the movie. With them following us, we passed the drunks and live country music that poured out of the bars. Neon flashed in the storefronts and an American flag flapped in the hot wind.

Wendy told me how the young man she was talking to, who I took for the son, kept telling her how pretty she is and was begging to kiss her. Wendy is very pretty, but she’s also married, which she explained.  He asked, “But are you happily married?”

Where did he learn to ask such a question? He looked like a friend her teenaged daughter might bring home.

Wendy told me she offered the young man career counseling instead of a kiss, and she urged him not to take over his father’s dentistry practice. “I asked him what makes him happy,” she said. “And his answer was money. He said money was the only thing that makes him happy.”

I didn’t think the dad seemed like a dentist; he seemed more like someone who made his living selling things. When I mentioned this later to Wendy, she told me that it wasn’t the son, but his friend, who had wanted to kiss her.

We crossed the street, and the men followed. I thought they’d eventually give up, but the dad started calling to us again: “Ladies! Where are you going?”

We quickened our pace, then steered into AJ’s Good Time Bar. They pursued us. We made a quick U-turn out of the bar, and so did they. Now at a jog, we retraced our steps. The dad kept trying to get our attention. “California!” he shouted, because we hadn’t revealed our names, only where we were from. “Let me buy you a drink.”

I shouted back, “Go away.”

“But I want to keep talking to you, California.”

We passed the Axe Throwing Game Room, then ducked into Nudie’s Honky Tonk. Only the dad trailed us now. The band played bluegrass, and we weaved through the dancing patrons, across the beer-sticky floors. The fiddle played a solo, and dancers of all ages swayed hips and waved tattooed arms overhead. Women shook their short denim skirts and twirled sundresses; men, wearing backwards baseball caps or cowboy hats, nodded in time to the beat. I wanted to dance, continuing the fun times with my college girlfriend, but the dad stalked me through the crowd. I ran down the stairs and into the ladies’ room—a place I knew he wouldn’t follow me.

When Wendy found me there near the sink, she said, “I took care of it. He’s gone.”

“I’m sorry I ran away. All of a sudden, fight or flight took over. How did you get him to leave?”

Wendy lathered her hands with soap, scrubbing them with an unusual vigor. “I told him you were done with him, and he needed to leave us alone.” She put one soapy hand in the air, showing me the gesture she’d used: “She’s done.”

“What did he say?” I asked. Women checked their images in the mirror, applying lip gloss and fixing their hair.

“He kissed my hand,” Wendy said, making a face in the mirror. She rinsed her hands and pulled a paper towel from the dispenser.

I told Wendy, “I guess once the dad found out I had an abortion, he thought I was a loose honky tonk woman.”

Wendy laughed.  “That’s the hypocrisy of it, isn’t it?  Here are these professed believers of God, yet they want to hook up with married women. Last time I checked, God doesn’t approve of infidelity. What would’ve happened if we really did hook up with them and we got pregnant?”

We both knew the answer.

 

Suzanne Roberts is the author of the memoir Almost Somewhere: Twenty-Eight Days on the John Muir Trail (winner of the National Outdoor Book Award), as well as four collections of poetry. Named “The Next Great Travel Writer” by National Geographic’s Traveler magazine, her work has recently appeared in Creative Nonfiction, Brevity, The Rumpus, The Normal School, and CNN. She holds a doctorate in Literature and the Environment from the University of Nevada-Reno, teaches creative writing for the MFA program at Sierra Nevada College, and serves as the current El Dorado County Poet Laureate. For more information, visit her website at www.suzanneroberts.net or follow her on Instagram, @SuzanneRoberts28.

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