It was 1959. Eisenhower was President, “Ben Hur” was the highest grossing picture, with “Sleeping Beauty” coming in second, and “Some Like It Hot” third. I was nearly twenty-one years old, reasonably pretty, sexy with the glow of youth and anticipation, and working as a clerk/typist for a low-end dress manufacturer in the Garment District.
I’d moved into a studio apartment on 57th and 8th Avenue in Manhattan one hot August day. Although it was an old building in a then run-down neighborhood, at $97.00 a month I could just afford the rent. I bought some secondhand furniture from the Salvation Army store, but ordered a new bed from Macy’s. Unfortunately, it was going to be delivered after I moved in, so until then, I’d no choice but to sleep on the floor.
The next morning, at a neighborhood coffee shop, I ran into Enrique. In his early thirties, he was tall and well built, had a square, handsome face and straight black hair. He worked with the Chilean Embassy. Sometimes I’d see Enrique and his two sons, on Sundays, carrying bats and balls on their way to Central Park. Sometimes I’d meet him on the street with his pretty Chilean wife.
Hearing that I’d moved into a new apartment without a bed, Enrique offered to loan me a beach lounge. He climbed up five flights of stairs with the heavy lounge chair on his back as it was too large for the building’s tiny elevator. At the apartment, tired and sweaty, he asked for the Scotch I’d brought with me.
While he drank, we chatted awkwardly and then suddenly, he lurched towards me. I tried to back away, but he grabbed me and pushed me down hard on the floor. He ripped my cotton shorts aside and pushed himself inside of me. I screamed, begged and pleaded with him to stop. He wouldn’t. He had me pinned down and I was frightened. After what seemed like forever, he finally pulled out and was instantly ashamed and sorry. “I don’t know what came over me,” he said. I started screaming at him, and he quickly ran out of the apartment. I showered, my tears mingling with the steamy water, trying to wash the dirty feelings away.
For the next few weeks, I tried not to think about what happened, avoided the neighborhood coffee shop and didn’t confide in anyone. I didn’t tell my mother because she was still angry I’d moved alone to Manhattan. I knew she wouldn’t understand, and would blame me. I thought briefly of going to the police, but remembered that Enrique, as an Chilean diplomat, was immune to prosecution. Besides, who would believe my word over his after I’d invited him to come up to my apartment with a bed?
When my period didn’t come, I went to the doctor and learned I was pregnant. I was in shock. Getting pregnant with an unwanted child was one of the worst situations a poor young woman could get herself into. I didn’t want a baby, and there was no way I could have afforded one. I felt I had no choice but to get an abortion. But abortions were illegal, albeit not impossible. In those days, real doctors, wanted a thousand dollars, and I didn’t have it. All my salary went to pay for rent and groceries.
I refused to even consider the not-so-secret world of incompetent abortionists who were not doctors, who emphasized speed and their own protection. They didn’t use anesthesia because it took too long for women to recover; they wanted them out as quickly as possible. Some abortionists were rough and sadistic, or even drunk. Setting up shop in cheap, rundown, often filthy apartments, or in the back room of a commercial store, or even in the back of a car, almost none took adequate precautions against hemorrhage or infection. Some women turned to dangerous self-abortions, such as inserting knitting needles or coat hangers into their vagina or uterus, douching with lye, or swallowing strong drugs or chemicals. Many women died, and others had been left with chronic illness and pain, or disfigurement or infertility.
But time was passing and I became desperate. I called everyone I knew trying to borrow the thousand for a secret abortion, but nobody had much money, except for a girlfriend who came up with a hundred. With a hundred and fifty of my own, I had two hundred and fifty dollars, cash.
When I exhausted all my leads in New York, I called my friend Aline, a young woman my age who used to live in my Brooklyn neighborhood, and now lived in Miami Beach. I knew she had gone to Cuba for her abortion but when we spoke she said that I was lucky as her doctor had recently arrived in Miami. I flew to Miami and took a shuttle bus to Aline’s apartment.
“Don’t eat anything heavy for dinner tonight,” a man with a Spanish accent instructed over the phone. “A white car will come by at nine in the morning.” He hung up.
I sat shaking, waiting for the white car. A pimply faced boy of about nineteen was driving and the Cuban doctor was sitting next to him in the front seat. I climbed into the back. The doctor said he had left Cuba and was now performing abortions in Miami at a retired doctor’s office.
We drove through the heat of that early morning to a residential neighborhood filled with large, gracious homes, to a big white rambling house surrounded by weeping willow trees near the ocean. The Cuban doctor told me to wait on the veranda while he went to get the retired doctor, who owned the house.
I sat on a large, white rattan chair and tried not to think about what was to come. Soon an old man approached me, wearing only a pair of faded grey summer shorts, his fat belly hanging over the elastic waistband, his fly open. It was clear it was his house, and he was the retired doctor.
“Dirty whore. Dirty rotten little whore,” he yelled. “She deserves whatever she gets. She’s just a cunt. They’re all just fucking cunts.”
Please God, I thought silently. This can’t be happening. I wanted to run away, but I’d no place to go, so I just sat there, on a porch facing the ocean, waiting to have an abortion, desperate, ashamed and afraid. Soon an attractive young woman wearing shorts and a halter top approached me. She said her name was Patsy, and asked me to follow her into a nearby room, which was minimally outfitted as a medical examining office.
“Get undressed and then get up on this,” she said, patting an old examining table, complete with stirrups. “I’ll hang up your clothes.” Soon, I stood only in my panties, shivering in the chilly room.
“Get those underpants off,” she ordered, “and get up on the table.”
I did as I was told, and she locked my legs in the stirrups.
Patsy walked out of the room, and I was left alone, frightened and numb with shame. She had left the door open and the young driver sitting on the veranda could plainly see me in my nakedness. I closed my eyes and thought about the happy times before my father died, the puppy he once surprised me with, but was distracted by the muffled arguing of the old man and the Cuban doctor coming from the next room. Soon my Cuban doctor appeared, seemingly agitated. “How much money do you have?” he asked.
“A hundred and twenty-five dollars”, I said. “Aline said that’s what it would cost.”
“That’s my price in Cuba. Here, it’s more. I have to give a hundred to the old man.”
Naked and shaking, I began to cry. “Please,” I begged. “I have no more money. I swear I’ll work when I get back to New York and pay you anything you ask. But please, help me now.”
“You expect me to do this operation for twenty-five dollars?” he asked angrily and reached into my purse, pulling out my hundred and twenty-five dollars, just as the old man walked into the room. His fly was still open.
“I’m taking my hundred,” he said. “You might as well do it. The little cunt’s here already.”
Patsy entered the room and stood close to me. She held a hypodermic needle. “Count to ten, backwards, she said. “Come on, ten…nine…eight…”
Sometime later, Patsy spoke directly into my ear. “Try to move. Make some sign that you’re going to be alright. Open your eyes, move your hand, anything, or they’re going to kill you.”
The words sounded as if they were off at the end of a long tunnel. They’re going to kill you. In a panic, I tried to move, but I had no control over my body. I could feel cold night air and grass beneath my naked body. I heard the rush of the ocean. I realized I was somewhere outside.
Patsy’s voice was edged with hysteria. “Listen closely,” she said. “Maybe I gave you too much sodium pentothal. You kept vomiting during the operation. We thought you were dying. The doctor gave you oxygen, but you didn’t come to. Now your doctor is gone and the old man wants to throw you in the ocean. Do you understand me? The old man is crazy. He wants to kill you.” Somehow, torturously, I inched my hand to her leg and touched her. Startled, she leaned in close to me. “Your doctor’s coming back in an hour”, she said. “I’ve gotten the old man to promise to wait until then before doing anything with you, but you’ve got to show him you’ll be alright.”
I nodded, slowly, using all my strength. Patsy ran to tell the old man I had come to. She then returned with my clothes and helped me dress.
The car returned with the Cuban doctor and the pimply faced boy driving and we eventually reached the heart of Miami Beach. They dumped me somewhere on Collins Avenue, and the Cuban doctor gave me a couple of dollars so I could grab a cab.
Back in Aline’s apartment, I cried when I saw her two children, a boy and a girl. I forgot that I had almost died, and realized what I had just killed—my baby.
I stayed with Aline for a week, feverish and ill most of the time. Back in New York, I went to see a gynecologist. He told me I had a serious infection, and treated me with penicillin, but said that I might never be able to have another child. Sadly, he was correct in his diagnosis.
Years later, when I was a successful television writer, working at The Dick Cavett Show, I saw my rapist on Madison Avenue. A welter of emotions swept over me and I tried to avoid avert him but he walked up to me. I realized he didn’t remember me; he was just trying to pick me up. I quickly told him about the rape and my abortion. Stricken, he apologized and asked what he could do for me. “Go fuck yourself,” I said, my voice cracking as I began to cry and walk away, silently thanking God that Roe vs. Wade had been since passed, and that any other girls who had or were yet to be the victim of this “rapist,” might be unable to prosecute him, but could now get a legal abortion and didn’t have to face the same, horrible experience as I had.
Sandra Harmon is a TV writer/producer,