Susan’s Week

Cezarija Abartis


I keep a sanitary pad in my purse wherever I go. I can feel the paper wrapper getting tatty and splitting open.

Tomorrow or very soon I will go to Kmart and buy a pregnancy kit, read the instructions, and do the test. I haven’t tried it before because I hoped my period would start, because it’s embarrassing, because the weather has been muggy, because I’ve been busy, because I haven’t had the time, because I’ve been afraid.

Even if I do the test and I’m not pregnant, I won’t believe it. I won’t believe it unless it gives bad news.

I will go up to Wallace as he’s reading some anthropology text about the kinship relations of the Trobrianders and say, “Wallace, I’m pregnant.” He’ll say, “Shit.” I’ll tell Nora over a bowl of soup and she’ll say, in one of her very rational, schoolmarm pronouncements, “Of course the most important thing is to figure out what you want to do and how to control the situation.” I’ll tell Jeff, and he’ll be solicitous and self-sacrificing. I won’t tell Mother.

Wallace will say in a generous and matter-of-fact voice, “I’ll pay for the abortion.” His fine, kind eyes will be focused on the faraway. I wish I could imagine him saying something beautiful and transforming. We cannot make each other fit our separate dreams.

He represents the effortless perfection of America—or what I think that is—smooth skin, straight bones, regular teeth, the heritage of good nutrition and of the affordability of medical miracles. My own mother, the daughter of two Polish engineers, has broad hands and a mole on her forehead. She told me she was relieved that I favored my small-boned American father.

Wallace said once he believed in ecstasy but not happiness. I replied that his arrogant expectations were due to his privileged upbringing, that people who were not children of corporate lawyers did not expect ecstacy. “You misunderstand me,” he said, not even raising his voice. “I meant that happiness does not exist except as an occasional spurt of dopamine.” I felt sorry for the poor little rich boy then.

Wallace plays tennis well. That’s a game which, when I was growing up, was a bus ticket and a transfer away. He wears Ralph Lauren eyeglasses, not the discount-store contact lenses that Jeff wears. What is most shameful about me is that I like Jeff’s adoration. I should just tell him to leave. Nora said, “Your problem, Susan, is you want it both ways—you’ll have to let one go.” Easy for Nora, who is radical, not divided. Wallace knows that Jeff carries a torch for me, and he feels sorry for Jeff. Sublime lack of jealousy or self-confidence or trust in me or something. Not indifference, I think. Not that.

Yesterday Wallace wore the sky-blue shirt I had given him. He stood against the square of my window, with the light and melting humidity behind him. The July heat had softened the six candles on the sill into arcs that bowed toward him. He gleamed as if he came out of the sun-soaked sea, a halo surrounding him, spangling him with dew drops, pearl drops, tear drops. Oh, Wallace, Wallace, Wallace. I want you to be my knight in shining armor, my lover who cancels Time and Space, my prince of men who promises eternity and delivers, who strides through this world untouched and always excellent, but I don’t think it’s the you of wry speculation and Armani socks with holes in them, of surprised eyes and sweaty palms on airplane flights I’m attached to, I doubt that I love you, I don’t think I love you, I know I don’t love you.

You so obviously jump off that pedestal I constructed. Even that is graceful, though.



Jeff was making calf-eyes at me during the Ethics of News Reporting seminar, and when he saw I noticed him, he quickly put on a neutral face, and that sweetness cut me, his concern for my comfort. I kept running my fingertips over the initials and lopsided hearts incised on the old oak table while Schultzie droned on about participatory journalism. I could not concentrate on the oral reports, but listened to the whine of the lawnmowers outside and, farther off, the sawing down of a diseased elm. Jeff struggled to open a jammed window; the clover smelled dense and green on the stagnant air. 

Right after the seminar, Nora and I walked over to the cafeteria. We had salty chicken soup, which I gulped down. She wanted to talk, to tell me she loves the new TV she bought with the money she got for housesitting, to tell me she received the packet of information about the Peace Corps, to tell me her father is okay. I wanted to wail at her that my problem is much worse and I don’t have sympathy to spare.

Nora’s father does not have prostate cancer. She was still wound up, happy and intense. “I don’t know which is worse, the waiting or the cancer.”

Yeah, I said.

Nora chattered away about her housesitting job, that she had to do some final house cleaning before her professor returns from Europe next week. “I’ll miss working in the garden,” she said. “I never realized how much I’d enjoy planting flowers.”

Nora mocks my bourgeois triangle. She has no use for Wallace and no affection for Jeff. I told her I was trying to recruit for her cause. Laughing, she patted my back and said, “Come the revolution, I’ll put in a good word for you.”

My birthday is next week. I’m worried that my graduate assistantship won’t be renewed after this year. I’m embarrassed about having to ask Schultz for an extension to complete my seminar paper. I’m behind on grading the exams for my professor. And I’m deathly afraid I’m pregnant.

I’m not superstitious, but I thought to myself, I’ll wear my expensive white linen shorts, that will make my period happen.

What would I offer to reverse this? Money? An earlobe? A finger? A memory of Wallace? Eventually I’ll have to give a clot. I’m stingy. Even now I’m unwilling to give very much. I want to extricate myself lightly, glide through this easily.

The news was on the radio in the lobby as Nora and I left the student center. Locally, Melissa Hanson reported that there was a trend toward threes in window signs—earrings! earrings! earrings! hats! hats! hats!

“Stupid! Stupid! Stupid!” Nora said, as she stopped to light a cigarette in front of the No Smoking sign. Then she shook her head. “Nothing about community involvement and social issues. I’m disgusted. I’d even rather listen to soft rock.” After a singing commercial for home insurance, the news came on with the reminder of the national debt, the conflict in Bosnia, a story about the pollution of a river in New York State.

In a world of torture, death, betrayal, where people disguise their faces, where the valve in my father’s heart was defective, and my cousin was born with an unconnected nervous system, I hope and imagine to get off scot-free.

Why do I imagine I’m special, that I’ll escape?



Wallace prepared Eggs Benedict for breakfast. Neither of us had another bite after I told him I might be pregnant. As I tipped my cup, the coffee grounds slid into the shape of a uterus. With the slightest swirl it disappeared.

Now when we run into each other in the graduate office or the Snack Shop or the library, I can see the intensity on Wallace’s face as if there were stones beneath his stretched skin. I want to calm him in my most maternal fashion, to lie to him, to tell him I’m not pregnant.

I told Wallace I just needed to put clean sheets on the bed for my period to start. He made a stiff smile. We saw each other a hundred times after classes and he tried not to ask, I could tell.

I feel anxious and edgy. I am a timid person. I worry if there’s somebody behind the telephone pole or in the alley when I walk home from the library. I’m afraid of breast cancer—one in nine odds. I worry about shelling in Bosnia, child abuse in California, flooding in Iowa. But I don’t do anything about any of it. And most of all I’m worried I’m pregnant. And then I don’t worry about anything.

The Operation Rescue organization will be picketing clinics in Cleveland next week and here after that. I don’t even hate them, but I’m afraid of a scene. Nora despises them, calls them Nazis. I just don’t want to be embarrassed.



I should call my mother because I haven’t called her in two weeks, but I cannot bear to hear her loving, tyrannical voice asking me what I want for my birthday. She will be falsely jolly. She will insist that I’m not eating enough, will interrogate and praise me for my few good grades, ask about the Incompletes on my transcript, hector me about deadlines, will not say how much she still misses Dad. 

When I was alone in the Office Trailer, Jeff sidled in clutching a bouquet of daisies wrapped in a cone of newspaper limp from the humidity. “An early birthday present,” he said. The air conditioner burbled noisily and I was feeling sorry for myself, listlessly leafing through the papers and exams on my desk. It had been exactly a year since we met in Griffin’s seminar on Mass Media and Social Institutions and Jeff transferred into the class late. He extended the bouquet toward me. “I’m not asking you for a date,” he said. “I’m happy to see you, that’s all.”

I had tears in my eyes, and he started singing in his thin tenor, “Oh, Susannah, now don’t you cry for me… The sun so hot I froze to death, the weather it was fine.” I laughed and said that was wrong, he’d gotten it wrong.

His devotion makes it worse. He’s not even asking me out anymore. He stares at me and smiles. Last month he said he wouldn’t ask me to marry him if I would just let him be around me. We can’t control our desires. If I could, I would love Jeff for his sappy admiration.

Outside the trailer the train roared by and rattled the tin roof. We didn’t have anything to talk about, so we talked about the three kittens in his garage. One is a white male and deaf. What a bad mother she was to abandon them, I joke lamely. Jeff doesn’t know what to do because the landlady does not allow pets. He’s hand-feeding them and sitting perfectly still on the cement floor as they come to sniff him. They romp around him, chasing leaves, pouncing on his toes, mewing at him in their treble tones, demanding and dispensing affection.



I bought a pregnancy detection kit. This one had two tests in it. Do I expect to get pregnant again? Why did I do that? It’s called First Response (“Easy,” “1-step,” “three minutes”), as if it were baby’s first words, or a missile launch. There were five or six different kinds at Walgreens, in monochrome narrow boxes with serious words on them and no pictures of fluffy-haired happy blondes.

The checkout clerk, a lady with bifocals, was arthritically putting into a white plastic bag the candy bars, balloons, card, and birthday candles of the grandmother in front of me.

“I can take care of someone here,” the high-school kid said behind me from the counter where you leave off film to be developed. I’m thinking if I should pretend I haven’t heard. I could see out of the corner of my eye that he’d leaned forward. He’d say it again, I knew, only louder.

I turned away from the grandmother and her shopping cart full of presents for children.

His skinny neck and short hair and big ears made him look even younger. As soon as I handed him the package, he hurriedly dropped it into a bag and didn’t meet my eyes. I felt sorry for embarrassing him.

At home I read the instructions a hundred times. The detector was a rectangular plastic rod the thickness of a few popsicle sticks, with a pair of windows smaller than fingernails cut into it. I was supposed to pee on this, hold it in the urine stream for five seconds, hold it vertically and not splash on the windows. My heart hammered as I tried to manage all this.

I blinked and two lines appeared in the windows. It wasn’t even the stipulated three minutes.

Shit. I was pregnant.



I told Wallace about the test. He took a breath. His eyes scooted away. And finally he asked what I wanted to do. (I know what I want, but not what to do. I want time to run backwards, that’s what I want. I want the sun to stand still, the wind to be soft, people to be kind, me to be kind.)

I will call my doctor, make an appointment. I’m glad it’s the weekend and I don’t have to do anything. I’m heavy, lethargic, as if I were deeply pregnant. It’s my mind playing tricks. I feel nauseated, hot, woozy. A sharp, cutting pain in my stomach rises and arcs acutely; my stomach is having sympathy pains with my uterus. What a good buddy. The Tummy, your friend. Back at Saint Casimir’s Grade School everything from collarbone down was Your Tummy. I have learned better since.
And of course I endlessly analyze the future: I could get married; I could have the baby; I could give it up for adoption; I could not have the baby; I could drop out of school; I could marry Wallace; I could marry Jeff… That’s as far as my imagination stretches. No—be imaginative. I could go to the moon; I could buy leopard-print tights and become a rock star. I have an infinite world of choices. I could kill myself.

Not funny, Susan.

This is not the year to become a mother.

I’m a modern woman. I don’t have a pinpoint of guilt about it. What is this malaise? That I am making a decision for forever? That I will never have a son or daughter? That this decision will be like every other: little by little, forever. But it’s not true. I can always have a baby later.

Wallace and I have talked about marriage obliquely, but we don’t really love each other. We are both clear on this, which is miraculous: 1) that we should be certain (when we’re uncertain about advisors, about dissertations and prelims, about where to live and so many other things) and 2) that we should both agree.



As I was getting ready for bed, I had a cramp that seemed to start in the root of my scalp and shoot out of me to the walls of the room.

The spasm passed, I put on my nightgown, I finished getting ready for bed. There was a warm, stringy blood clot, for a moment in the shape of a thorn in the toilet. I knew what it was. My womb expelled the zygote. This wretched tissue, my exhausting, humiliating interior self has finally been extruded and expelled. But I don’t feel celebratory.

I’m very tired.



Nora is sleeping in my bedroom, and I’m sleeping on the couch. While she was staying at her advisor’s house, on the night before he came home from Switzerland, a burglar broke into Nora’s empty apartment and took her Sears TV, her CD player, even her cheap Japanese guitar. When I drove over to pick her up, her skin felt clammy and she looked flat, the way a frightened animal will collapse, hoping the predator will have mercy this time. She’s afraid to go back to her apartment. “Just superstition,” she said. “And normal terror.”



In the middle of the night, I woke up with the heavy thought on my tongue—I will die in twenty years. I don’t believe it, of course, but I’m drawn to analyze it. My subconscious is perhaps guilty about the spontaneous abortion because I wished it; or my life feels chaotic and I’m depressed; or I’m ill and tomorrow is my birthday and I don’t want to telephone my mother or wait for her call. The rational part of me is not superstitious and does not believe in this message from the dark, the knotted sleepy self. This is not guilt, just normal terror.