Make Me a Manhattan
Lisa Brown had never held more than a waitress’ day earnings. The $150 pinned to her bra felt like a gold vault strapped to her chest. Her eyes were heavy from working double shifts for days on end, the pep in her step long come and gone. The past two weeks of hyper-awareness about how much cash she was carrying with her would not leave her be. Sticky fingered family, friends, and foes would not be above lifting from a lady’s coin purse. She no longer had to deal with a sea of high schoolers bumping, nudging, and shoving her, but graduating hadn’t brought any benefits aside from more available working hours.
The trip would be Lisa’s first time out of Kentucky. She’d seen the multi-story blue and white Greyhound bus terminal many times, but didn’t possess the money, desire, or gall to buy a ticket out. She was leaving on a steeled blue contraption to travel nearly 800 miles from home. The squeal of the brakes disturbed her as the bus pulled into the spot, and the sea of dirty faces packed too close together made Lisa’s nerves spark and whinny more than the old gears meant to carry her to her destination. She handed the driver her ticket and found a seat towards the middle of the bus. She’d transfer in Pittsburgh. Her wavy brown hair was pinned up, still wet from a quick shower, but the muggy Louisville weather and high-capacity transit station had already layered her with more grime. 1970 was in no way a year of record sales for antiperspirant companies.
It was a full twenty-four hours to New York. All the way to Manhattan, and not ten dollars to spare for even one Broadway ticket. Her itinerary would be brief: arrival, a night’s rest at a 25-cent hostel, then back to Kentucky. A wearying weekend trip, but nothing she couldn’t handle.
She’d already known fatigue like the hills knew the flood plains.
Lisa told her parents that she was visiting a friend for the weekend at Barnard College. Her father told her not to come back a dyke. Her mother said to not drink shitty, overpriced liquor that could never hold a candle to bourbon. Lisa prayed her 13-year-old brother David wouldn’t go through what little business she kept in her bedroom. Even for a double wide, the walls seemed especially thin, the rooms like little boxes. Their family of four barely fit in that excuse for a home. The last few weeks had made it feel even more claustrophobic. Her problems were fast outgrowing her 19-year-old body and mind. The Big Apple promised some kind of answer, at least.
“You’re gonna work yourself to death. Moving to Paris or some shit?” her daddy had asked after yet another double shift.
“Gettin’ while the gettin’ is good, Daddy,” she told him, hoping he wouldn’t notice the bulges on her frame.
“Careful about pickin’ at that pie all day though, baby. Fat waitresses don’t get big tips,” her mama told her.
Mama knew firsthand, as her own belly was forever poking out from under a housecoat. Lisa had concentrated on keeping her own tummy sucked in around others, which meant a wariness that lasted almost the entire day. She could only afford to exhale during restroom breaks and in her unsettled sleep. Lisa was thin, so if anyone had noticed, she planned to claim she’d finished a big lunch. But no one seemed to notice or care. She kept them dazzled with a false countenance, extra makeup caked on to hide the increasing pallor of her ivory skin. She didn’t have much to show, not that her parents would’ve noticed. When Mama wasn’t working at Wal-Mart and Daddy at the gas station, they were either at home drinking beer in front of the TV or down at the Blue Lagoon Club drinking beer in front of the TV.
Lisa’s brother David often amused himself running around town stealing any and everything not bolted down. Only because he could. He didn’t spend much time at home except to eat or spit something slick at Lisa.
“You’re so fucking ugly you’d make a freight train take a dirt road,” he’d hiss, then run off before Lisa could think of a comeback. She hoped her parents found each other as repulsive as they looked—she could do without any more children in this house. Besides there was no space in what they called a ‘home,’ that stash of beer cans. Spaghettios stretched only so far.
She began to feel even sicker to her stomach as the waves of body odor from the passengers crowding around her permeated her nostrils. Bell bottom pants, flowing maxi dresses, ponchos, and frayed jeans drifted by a hunched over Lisa. She cradled a small knapsack that held a change of clothes and a few toiletries. She had not thought to bring anything to vomit in. Keeping her nausea in check for a few more days was a challenge she was ready to meet, what with a finish line in sight.
That nausea had been the first sign. Lisa later struggled to keep her energy up throughout the day. When another waitress accidentally elbowed her breast while bringing out a breakfast tray, it felt like workmen slamming a sledgehammer against her areola. Lisa borrowed her cousin’s car and drove a half hour east to Shelbyville. Two weeks later she returned for a follow-up appointment to confirm what she’d already known. A heave of vomit escaped her mouth on the spot, narrowly missing the hem of the doctor’s coat. She sobbed as she apologized, accepting the paper towel placed in her hand. Her sobs went deeper than any stomach upset. The doctor remarked that she’d never seen Lisa around Shelbyville, and then correctly guessed that she was from out of town. She handed Lisa a note and informed her that there were limits for what could be done in Kentucky, but she had access to all options in New York. For time and money’s sake, it was best that Lisa call and schedule an appointment there as soon as possible. On the note the doctor had written the name, address, and phone number of a clinic in Manhattan.
“I won’t get in trouble? It ain’t against the law?” Lisa asked.
“The laws up there are different. Ain’t no trouble to get into, but best keep your mouth shut ’til you get there. You’re about six weeks along. You have up to twenty-four weeks—that’s almost six months—but that costs a heck of a lot more. And you’re going to bring more questions by then. Get up there as quick as you can.”
Lisa looked around the bare bones room, before recalling the poster in the lobby, one that promoted the draft.
She eyed the doctor suspiciously. “Why are you telling me this?”
“You don’t need that? I’ll take it back.”
“No! I just wondered why…”
“Some girls want to be doctors but can’t ever do that if they’re stuck at home. Home must not be too safe if you’re all the way over here.”
“Home is why I gotta get myself up there.”
Lisa had nearly fainted when she called the Manhattan doctor’s office and was informed of the $150 cost of service. She scheduled the appointment anyway, bought her bus ticket, and schemed on how to fundraise. A few borrowed dollars here and there from as many friends and friendly strangers as she could find would get it done. Lisa asked her manager if she could pick up extra shifts at the Lucky Lou diner, and added all the razzle in her dazzle in hopes of higher tips. She took loose change anywhere she could find it, and finagled a few bucks from men at local bars she’d normally have avoided sharing a beer with, much less permitted to feel her up.
When the driver yelled, “Columbus,” Lisa sprinted from her seat before anyone else could so much as stand. Only four hours had passed from Louisville to Ohio, but she’d been dying to pee for the past two. Still, as desperately as she needed to empty her bladder, her entire lower body tensed at the sight of the filthy bus station restroom. Lisa searched around the station, knowing time was not on her side, and lucked out: there was a diner across the street. She pondered grabbing something to eat there, but thought it better to keep her stomach empty before racing back to her seat, and curling up for the next leg of the trip.
“Anybody got a light? I need something to calm my ass down if I gotta sit this fucking long!” a barrel-voiced woman with an alcohol-laced, syrupy drawl hollered. She plopped next to Lisa. “Shit, I should probably hold out for Pittsburgh or some damn where. Maybe smokes are cheaper there. What’s going on with you, honey?”
Lisa sharply turned to look at the loudmouthed woman in the fringed suede jacket and psychedelic print palazzo pants now sitting beside her. There were other empty seats, other places this woman could have situated herself.
“Nothing,” Lisa whispered.
“Fuck, Ohio smells like ass, don’t it?” she asked.
Lisa thought someone with a head of un-brushed hair and stained teeth wasn’t the best judge of what offended the senses, but she agreed.
“I’m Patty, who’re you?” the woman asked as she shook off her jacket.
“Sleepy,” Lisa responded.
“Shit, ain’t tryna bother you,” Patty replied earnestly. “I could just tell you ain’t from over here either. I’m from Beaumont. That’s in Texas. I was in California for a little bit, but now I gotta see what New York got.” She ran her fingers through her limped mane, her air slightly less brusque.
Lisa informed her she was from Kentucky, but on her way to New York as well. Patty was attending the Festival for Peace at Shea Stadium in Queens. She appeared impressed by Lisa’s story about how she planned to visit a friend at Barnard.
“I wasn’t never good at none of that book stuff, but good for you, girl,” Patty said, smiling. “Maybe on my way back I should head over to Kentucky and try some of that ole bourbon straight from the horse’s mouth. Do y’all put horse in that shit?” she chuckled.
Lisa began to relax. Her new companion, uncouth as she was, was providing a needed distraction.
“You been pickin’ from the Colonel’s kitchen? Your denim lookin’ a little tight around your tummy,” Patty said as she eyeballed Lisa’s mid-section.
Her eyes widened as she glared at Patty.
“Don’t pop a blood vessel before you see that fancy New York doctor,” Patty smirked. “What…?”
“You think you’re the first and only crossing up north? Word like that travels fast—law or no, but especially law.”
Lisa looked around to see if any of the other passengers were tuning in or out of Patty’s ramblings.
“I don’t judge, a couple of my friends went and got gut jobs, and they didn’t go anywhere near as fancy as some Manhattan pad. Just can’t believe a pretty pageant girl like you can’t get a sucker to marry you or something.”
“I don’t want to be married. Isn’t that what you peace-and-free-love types are all about?” Lisa asked coolly.
“Yeah, just sayin. What about the daddy?”
“What about him?” Lisa had become more than irritated, but they were still in Ohio. Even though Patty looked like a hippie, Lisa wasn’t sure how far the law was on her side outside of New York.
“Well, what’s wrong with him, is he a nigger or something?” Patty inquired.
“Nah, he ain’t. Why?”
“I don’t hate niggers or nothing, just ain’t makin’ babies with none of ’em,” she sneered.
Lisa hadn’t allowed her mind to drift to John in weeks. He hadn’t been a stranger. It was she who had made herself one. He had started delivering their mail on Saturdays and Wednesdays six months prior. Otherwise nondescript, he had waist-length red hair and a mass of freckles covering his arms. John was twenty-seven years old, but didn’t look a day over sixteen. A short little guy, but possessed of the muscular leg definition of a much larger man. He had gone unnoticed by Lisa until one day he smiled and greeted her as she was leaving for a shift at the diner. She found an unmatched kindness in his eyes. That great kindness and generosity Lisa soon became deeply, intimately familiar with. She couldn’t get enough of his visits, always on Wednesday mornings while her parents were at work, her brother at school.
John was a caring and attentive lover. Long days delivering mail gave him endurance, a healthy tan, and a slight musk. Lisa could’ve told him she was pregnant, but didn’t want to. She didn’t want him to feel obligated to be with her or take care of a baby. She didn’t want to move in or be with someone because they wanted her to conform to expectations, and it would be a cold day in hell before she brought another life into her dysfunctional family. She knew that their meetings were meaningless and fleeting, not much different from how he passed by houses and dropped off parcels. A guy like that probably looked at all of the ladies the same, his special delivery a type of community service.
It was the lane she had chosen to veer into and there was room for only one. She didn’t want, or need, any more convincing to spare someone else from splitting lukewarm Spaghettios. She had decided to save John that effort.
A fear sat in the deepest crevices of her being. Lisa simply hadn’t wanted to share news of her pregnancy or have her mind swayed another way. A few weeks of pain and loneliness was much better than a lifetime of regret. In the end, though, her choice was under scrutiny by a random redneck with bad breath and dirty feet.
“He’s alright, I’m just not looking to do this right now with anyone. I don’t have anything, and if I don’t go to New York I’ll have a whole lot of something that needs everything,” Lisa sighed. “Now, let me get some shut-eye.”
“You really should go to that school you lied about going to—you’re smart, Kentucky.” Patty smiled.
Lisa didn’t get much sleep. Patty was ready to converse with everyone in the immediate vicinity: men, women, and the occasional child accompanied by an unbothered parent. She then proceeded to almost miss the bus during a stop in Pittsburgh for a smoke break. Her wheezing as she ran back onto the silver transport was of a person three times her size. Lisa, her eyelids closed in pretended slumber, showed no reaction as Patty reclaimed the seat beside her.
Lisa’s mood started to shift as they roared east over the beautiful Ohio River, leaving Bluegrass country entirely behind. Mountains emerged. The air now smelled like a bag of loose change, rushing in through one of the cracked-open bus windows. Her eyes widened and nostrils flared as she watched the landscape and air quality shift.
When the Greyhound reached Manhattan’s Port Authority bus terminal, Patty gave Lisa’s shoulder a squeeze and warmly told her, “Good luck, little duck.” Then she ran off to seek sensation. New York City was filthier and more broken down than Lisa had expected. Scores of well-dressed people flooded past dilapidated buildings and trash-filled streets. Lisa knew a broken down car when she saw one, and there were dozens lining the curb. Music shops with rug-covered floors held no furniture, only seated persons propping up instruments in their laps. A lack of sleep made Lisa’s vision unsteady. She was unsure if some of the men she saw were women. Or the women might’ve been men. One thing she was certain of was that the smelly Greyhound bus now seemed like a perfume counter when compared to the rancid odors around her. The New York City miasma smelled like a mixture of hot garbage, urine, body odor, and sewage straight from the bowels of hell. Her nausea finally won out, and she released any and all remnants from her insides onto the sidewalk. No one commented, or seemed to notice at all. What had just happened, the evidence pooled at her feet, marked the least disturbing occurrence for blocks around. The people were grotesque, yet loudly prideful. The longer she looked around, the more she saw similarities to her native Kentuckians: men showing off their cars in the hope a strangers would take notice; skinny girls in short skirts shaking their imagination; men wearing open shirts revealing bird chests; and Black men dressed head-to-toe in matching leopard print.
Lisa was still running on fumes, but power-walked the few miles to the hostel in under twenty minutes. She called the clinic to request a return call an hour before her scheduled appointment time, and they offered to pick Lisa up. For the first time in weeks, she exhaled deeply, then settled onto a lower bunk in a room meant to accommodate twenty other people. As of midday, she had the entire space to herself. Her two-hour nap provided solace from her worries.
A dark-haired woman with bright green eyes knocked on the door and jolted her awake. There was someone at the front desk looking for Lisa, she said. Lisa stumbled to the door in her now-wrinkled attire. A woman in a red turtleneck and plaid skirt greeted her with a warm smile.
“My name is Jane and I’m here to take Ms. L. Brown to an appointment scheduled for one o’clock.” She spoke gently with an air of the automatic. This was a regular duty.
“Yes, thank you,” Lisa stumbled in both her words and movement on the way to a silver Buick parked in front of the old brick hostel. It wasn’t too shabby for the price, and would do well if she ever made an actual visit instead of arriving on a mission to obtain emergent medical care.
The drive to the clinic was shorter than ten minutes. Again, her body appreciated the reprieve. The twenty-four hours crammed onto the bus had taken more energy from her than the two weeks of relentless scurrying and scraping. They reached a red brick building with large white lettering, ‘Manhattan Women’s Health Resources,’ and parked in a back lot. Upon entry there were strikingly bright white lights, walls, and tile flooring. Lisa was suddenly wide-awake and aware of how much pain she was in. Jane led her to a lobby with twelve other women seated in plastic folding chairs. As different as each looked—short, tall, too young, seemingly too old, skinny, chubby, Black, white, Asian—many shared a look of weariness, and most appeared off elsewhere, in a place they weren’t pregnant. Somewhere an hour or two in the future.
Lisa checked in with the receptionist and took a seat. Her lingering fears began to subside as women exited the lobby with smiles on their faces. A few shed silent tears. Others remained stuck in fugue and fear. The room was colder than expected, and Lisa wished she had brought a coat. The air seemed to move, even though each woman sat with a statue-stillness in her singular seat. No one spoke a word, unless a new client checked in, and then there were only hushes, blinks, and whispers.
For a moment, Lisa contemplated what Patty’s commentary might be about the room of patients. She’d probably suggest we all go out for drinks, and that wouldn’t be the worst idea, Lisa thought. Patty was probably drinking whatever excuse for liquor New York had, shooting who knows what with God knows who, and loving every minute of it. Lisa would wait until she was back home for real bourbon…
The nausea rose again, but this wasn’t due to the pregnancy. Instead it seemed to launch from a new sense of anxiety. She’d worked so hard to reach New York. She knew she didn’t want to give birth and raise a baby. Here she was, seated in a clinic in a city entirely new to her, and for the first time she had time to stop and think... what if she made another choice? What if Lisa moved out of her parents’ doublewide? What if she had a baby with John’s beautiful hair and her clear unblemished skin? Then, more questions: Who would watch the baby while she went to work? She knew enough people on welfare. It wasn’t fun, but it wasn’t the worst. Could she carry the baby, then hand it over to strangers, to be raised by people she didn’t know? That didn’t sound like an option.
None of these possibilities felt like anything she wanted to do, as readily available as each might be. Lisa realized she could do anything, but there was only one thing that she wanted to do. As scared as she was of the procedure, she couldn’t imagine herself getting bigger and having a baby. That’s what would happen if she left the clinic without seeing the doctor, and that was not going to cut the mustard.
Lisa was called to the back. It was a room not much larger or even fancier than the Shelbyville clinic that had sent her north. The space smelled heavily of a medical grade disinfectant. Papers appeared to line nearly every available surface. The nurses and doctors here looked nothing like the ones back home. There couldn’t have been more than a dozen female physicians in the entire state of Kentucky, Lisa supposed, but every single doctor, nurse, receptionist, and janitor in this clinic was a woman. Most of the medical staff dressed modestly, but with polished style. Others couldn’t be bothered to put on a brassiere, breasts swinging, waving ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye.’ Some of them were almost definitely the sort of “dykes” who would rile up her father.
The only woman who had bothered to wear any lipstick sat with Lisa and explained the “vacuum aspiration.” It made sense when she spelled it out, but it still sounded weird. It would start off like a pelvic exam and not last much longer.
Afterwards, Lisa was assisted into a wheelchair, then guided to a recovery room equally as quiet as the lobby. The countenance of the other women was significantly different. All were silent, and a portion of them were asleep, but the restlessness from the lobby had disappeared. A woman with long braided hair wearing a pink and white sundress went around the room to give each patient handmade tassel necklaces and daisy bracelets. Lisa took one of each. Somebody else offered a ride back to the hostel, but Lisa requested that she be dropped off at the Greyhound station instead. As she walked out the door, Lisa now numbered with the women who left the clinic with a smile on their faces, at ease and pleased.
The ride back to Louisville was much easier, if lacking in any companionship. She placed her hand on her stomach, knowing it would soon flatten. Her life in Louisville, however, no longer felt like a dead end. She reflected on the effort she’d made to reroute her life, all that had gone into it, her journey to the largest city in the country where she had handled a medical procedure all by her lonesome. Nobody back home the wiser. It was what she had wanted, and now that she had accomplished it, Lisa meant to discover what else it was she might want.