Forced Reflection

By Olivia Katrandjian

Your body is a temple, God told us, but no one pays their respects.


Only shame slithers in and makes a home in our flesh, as if, as women, we aren’t already intimately acquainted.


We must swallow the implication that we have time to waste.


We must swallow the implication that our minds cannot be trusted, that it is preferable to go home and consult our husbands, or boyfriends, or if we are underage, fathers.


For some of us, this means a day of missed work and a night of sleeping in a parking lot, because we had to drive for six hours to get here.


Some of us don’t have a car and can’t afford the bus fare. No one asks, if we can’t afford the bus, how can we afford the baby?


*


“It’s the law,” the doctor tells one of us.

“Some people change their mind,” he tells another.

“Be grateful, in France they’d make you see a psychologist.”


We are not grateful to be told the fetus will feel pain, and so if we decide to return, it must be given anesthesia.


We are not grateful to be forced into counseling, where we are fed misinformation.

If you choose to have an abortion, you are choosing infertility, depression, and breast cancer.


None of this is true.


But that does not stop one of us, years later, when cancer devours her cell by cell, from wondering if it is her fault.


*


“In Poland…” the doctor continues.


We know about Poland, where men were deaf to the cries of women on the streets.


The cruelty scrapes at us, and we know that desperate Polish women, with no safe alternatives, will be scraped at as well.


By comparison, we are lucky and should not complain.


*


We return.


One of us is relieved she doesn’t have to walk past the protesters she saw as a child outside her hometown clinic, brandishing posters of giant fetuses stamped with their “death dates.”


Most of us do.


They pray, they plead, they plague.


They claim to be feminists, now.


Women’s Rights Begin in the Womb, they cry, and we want to ask where our rights went.

Women Deserve Better, they shout. And we want to say yes, we do.

Choose life, they beg, and we want to say, we are.


They guide us to the crisis pregnancy clinic next door.

The building looks like a healthcare facility, but has no license.

The doctor looks like a medical professional, but has no degree.


Some of us don’t realize the nurses are not nurses.

Some of us do, and leave,

But too late—

bound by no laws, they distribute our information, and we are harassed over the phone for weeks.


You should be hanged for murder

they tell one of us outside, and use spit as punctuation.


We flinch and hate ourselves

for that tiny, instinctual movement.


*


We sit in the waiting room and wait for our name to be called. We hear whispers that another woman is at 12 weeks, and it feels normal, somehow, like a sad, small town beauty parlor.


We sit in the waiting room and wait for the doctor to smear gel on our bellies and say

Look, your baby is smiling at you. Should I print you a picture?


We sit in the waiting room and wait for the doctor to ask, again, if we are sure.


Some of us see the irony in having to sign a consent form now, when lack of consent brought us here.


Others scribble anything to get the pills, chugging water to force them down more quickly.


One of us, in Sweden, desperate for a child but pregnant at 37 by a man she can’t stand,

carries the pills to the waterfront, and before swallowing, looks at her stomach and says,

please come back.

It never does.


Others cannot get by with pills alone, and must have it sucked out.

A vacuum to clean up the mess we’ve made.


*


One of us, in Jacksonville, 22 and broke, returns home still pregnant. The deadline passed during our forced reflection. I would’ve gone sooner, but it took too long to raise the money.


One of us, in Damascus, can’t return to our mother looking so pale, so our boyfriend hides us in a storage shed on his roof, where we lie on a dank mattress until we have the energy to sneak back home up the fire escape, blood leaking down our leg.


One of us, in Philadelphia, sits our three-year-old on our lap and reads Dr. Seuss up to the line,

A person’s a person, no matter how small. We shove the book onto the top shelf, out of reach, and choose another, because being a mother never stops, even if we’ve just come out of surgery.


One of us, in Beirut, throws away the fake ID we used to get blood tests to confirm that we are, and then a week later are not, pregnant. I said I was testing for the pregnancy hormone because I was doing IVF. I had to make up a fake husband. Then we rummage through the trash and pluck out the ID, in case we ever need to be Rashida again.


*


We wait for the deluge.


We didn’t know we’d be able to see it.


We didn’t know it would look like a chewed up piece of gum, the spine like bite marks.


One of us feels liberated, like she regained control of her body, and does a little shimmy in the bathroom mirror.


One of us never wants to have children, ever, but sobs for five days and can’t stop wondering, Would it have looked like me?


One of us is told she chose this, so she has no right to mourn.


One of us is sure she made the right decision, but her hand keeps reaching out to rub her belly.


One of us wonders if something’s wrong with her, because she feels no guilt at all, only intense, exhausted, relief.


One of us is told by her boyfriend that he’s glad she isn’t traumatized.

A lot of women are really affected by it.

Do we have to be traumatized to be affected? Will even the best of them ever know how we feel?


One of us is traumatized, and wishes she had a name to use,

just to say hi or sorry it wasn't your fate.


But we all know we are not allowed to name it.


*


We do not share the details, even with our closest friends.


Women before us did not either, and so some of us are surprised when the bleeding goes on for weeks and then months, a constant reminder that we must carry the burden, even when we’re saving ourselves from it.


Just when we think we are free, the flood returns, during a meeting, while we are out, lest we forget that we are at the mercy of our bodies, which are at the mercy of the men who govern them.


And then, finally, it’s over. Our skin clears. Our pants button. Our mood evens.


We have felt unquestionably pregnant, but when our friends clutch their swollen bellies and speak of nausea, we cannot say we know how they feel. We cannot say we were pregnant once, too, because ours does not count. We cannot say anything at all, because it’s best forgotten.


Who are we to complain?


OLIVIA KATRANDJIAN is a graduate student in Creative Writing at Keble College, and the founder of the International Armenian Literary Alliance. Her first novel, The Ghost Soldier, was awarded second place in the National Literary Prize of Luxembourg in 2019. She is a nasty woman.


Art by Izzy Fergusson