by Frances Badalamenti
On the night that Uncle Joe’s Tavern opened for the first time ever, I was asleep in my room. I had turned ten that day. My mother had our loud Italian family over for baked ziti and cake. We had just moved from a big four-bedroom house with a sprawling yard and a two-car garage into a nondescript one-bedroom garden apartment, even though there was nothing resembling a garden. There was grass and parking areas. My parents had recently divorced. I got stuck with our unstable mother and my older brother remained trapped with our checked out father and his way-too-young new wife.
But the real reason I bring up the day that I turned ten was not to turn this into an after school special about a latchkey kid with a broke ass mom and a cheap mall haircut. It’s because twenty miles east of suburban shit-town Jersey, a place that would some day turn me into an actual person opened it’s doors to the public for the first time to not yet known band named R.E.M. playing to a sweaty–as-fuck crowd in a dark back room.
In years to come, I would stand on a chair in that same bedroom in that same apartment and I would paint the lyrics to R.E.M.’s Gardening at Night on my wall.
I would be a teenager. I would have a skater boyfriend with a flop haircut. I would tie-dye my sheets and I would burn incense. I would wear thick black eyeliner and oversized army pants. I would fight with my mom. I would hate my mom. I would throw a can of hair spray and dent the sheetrock in the living room. I would slam my bedroom door and it would come off the hinges. I would get drunk in the woods. I would not do drugs. Not yet. I would try to have sex but it wouldn’t work. Not yet. I would take a bus into Manhattan. I would buy a Guatemalan backpack from a street vendor. I would drive my mother’s piece-of-shit car before I had a license. I would smoke her lipstick-stained cigarette butts. And then fuck, fuck, fuck. I would steal tampons.
And I would get caught.
But no matter what I did. No matter where I went. No matter who I hung out with. I would always take refuge by listening to R.E.M. on the tape deck in my room. Sometimes I would sit on the floor and weep.
Not because I was sad, even though I was pretty sad. But because I was so lost.
And because the music drilled into a part of me that didn’t yet have words.
So when I think about a tragically beautiful and young and not-yet-famous Michael Stipe singing Gardening at Night on a bitter cold late autumn night on my tenth birthday in a back room that used to be a garage, a place that would eventually change me for the better, is to fill the hole that got gutted when I was a confused as hell kid lost in the deep dark bowels of Jersey.
It was a weekend night and the show was sold out. Which meant that it would be busy as fuck. Three, maybe four deep at the bar until the music started and then the front room would clear. When I got to work, I put my bag in a cabinet behind the old wooden bar and wrote up a ticket for a veggie burger shift meal. It was getting busy and so I sat at the end of the bar, eating and smoking. People were arriving from outside of Milltown, mostly Brooklyn or Manhattan, from all around Jersey, Long Island even.
I poured myself a ginger ale and bitters and sat in the back of the band room and smoked during sound check.
It was a band that had driven out from Idaho. They were called Built to Spill. All the dudes who worked at Uncle Joe’s were drooling over this band like they were a hot girl. They sounded good. Just enough emotion. And more than anything, I knew that it would be one of those nights. When magic flows out of the band room. When Rob, the owner of Uncle Joe’s and our surrogate mean dad, would be nice to us.
I went down to the creepy dark cellar to clock in and could hear a voices on the other side of the wall. There was always a packed bowl in the walk in cooler, complements of the chef. So when the huge metal door opened, a cool stinky breeze wafted through the air and three dark haired guys tumbled out like high-as-fuck pirates walking off a boat.
When I got back upstairs, I tucked a white bar rag in my back pocket and sidled up next to Mike, the bar back. He was putting beers into the neat rows in the metal cooler. Bottles clanked. And every few minutes, the back room door would swing open and you’d hear the sound guy say, Two, Two, Two in a funny voice. Rob could surface at any point, so we were trying not to fuck around too much. Mike’s brother Pete, the other bartender, was busy pouring pints and shots for customers. I kept busy cutting fruit and wiping down the bar like a nervous housewife getting ready for a dinner party.
And then two friends of one of my housemates walked in, this guy Shawn and his cousin Matt. They had come in from the city to see Built to Spill. We had hung out the week prior at 7B in the East Village. I ended up talking mostly to Shawn. He had bought me a drink and told me that I was nice to look at. I was intrigued and attracted, but he intimidated me. He was like nobody I had ever met. I kept staring at the big metal rod that was pierced into the top of his ear. I had heard that he was a cop. That he copped drugs for a living. That he would go into work dressed up like a junkie.
“Hey.” Shawn said.
“Oh hey, man. How’s it going?” Mike said and they shook hands.
“Yeah, good. Hey you.” He said to me.
“Hey.” I said.
“Can I get a Rolling Rock?”
I opened a beer and put it on the bar under a napkin. Shawn handed me a five and I sauntered over to the register. I could feel his stare burning into my ass. He chatted with Mike about the band. I was too nervous in my stomach to engage in their conversation, like I didn’t have anything to add. Like I was a child. When Mike walked off to change a keg, I was left alone with Shawn. Pete was at the other end of the bar talking to some locals. We paid attention to the locals. We didn’t pay much attention to the bridge and tunnel crowd. We just poured their drinks and look their money.
“You look different.” Shawn said to me.
“Oh, yeah. I got a haircut.” I said and looked down at the spilling over tray of cut fruit, trying to avoid eye contact.
“I like it. It looks really good.” He said.
The cokehead hairdresser Patrick, who was an Uncle Joe’s fixture, had cut my hair into a pixie a few days prior. I also bought a bunch of new clothes. I was finally making good money and living in a decent apartment, so I felt strong. Shawn smiled at me. He grabbed his beer and went to sit at a table with his cousin. He wore spongy creeper shoes, black jeans, a short sleeve button down shirt with a white t-shirt underneath. His jet-black hair was greased back. I never knew anyone who looked like that.
“That guy likes you. But he’s a fucking cop.” Mike whispered in my ear.
“Shut the fuck up.” I said and then punched him hard in the arm.
* * *
We walked up Frankin Avenue and sat at an old wooden bar staring at each other. We talked about Forth of July. I had gone to the shore with friends from high school. His was so much more important. Something about people in the South Bronx going onto rooftops and shooting off guns because the sound gets masked by fireworks. Something about a drug dealer stashing drugs behind a payphone and how he got shocked when he went to grab it. He had dark circles under his eyes. Like he hadn’t slept for days. He told me that he had to go on depression meds recently. And that he was still adjusting to the drugs.
I wanted to kiss him at the bar but it was crowded with all these townies. I didn’t want anyone see me kissing a random guy at a bar.
When we got back to my apartment, Shawn stashed a small gun under the couch cushion. He called it a snubnose. He told me he never knew who would follow him. I told him nobody would follow him to Milltown and I laughed, but he didn’t laugh. We sat on the couch over the gun and didn’t stop kissing and touching each other. Nobody in the house was back from work yet, so it was dark except for streetlights. It was quiet. He asked me to tell him what I wanted him to do. We walked into my makeshift bedroom in the dining room. We took off each other’s clothes. He went down on me for a while and then fucked me slowly at first and then a little harder because that’s what I asked him to do.
When we were done with the fucking, I went to the bathroom and then we both got dressed. He opened a big Corona that he had bought from the deli on the way home from the bar. We sat on my floor and passed it back and forth. I could hear my housemates getting home from work and walking up the stairs and going into their rooms. We slept in my futon for a few hours and when the light came into the room, he sat up. I watched him put on his jeans. His skin was so light and his dark hair fell into his face as he bent down. I put my arms around his waist and sunk my face into his warm back.
We walked to the corner deli before he went back to the city. I bought us each coffees. Then we sat on my stoop, smoking and sipping. I wasn’t sure if I’d ever see him again.
“I’m gonna get pretty busy for a while, but I’ll call when I can.” he told me.
“Oh yeah. That’s cool.” I said.
I wanted to cry because I felt lost in so many feelings. He had this intensity and also this darkness. I smiled and made out like I was totally chill about everything. He kissed me for a long time on the lips. And then he left and I watched him walk around the corner.
When I left home, I never really wanted to go back there. My mother was an emotional mess. My father was laser-focused on protecting his fragile wife like she would break. So it was down to me and my brother. We were so trauma bonded from years of orbiting around those two psycho worlds. We midwifed each other through heart-wrenching breakups and job bullshit. We turned to each other when we didn’t have the energy to turn to friends because with friends, oftentimes you have to explain yourself.
So when I found out that I was pregnant, I told was my brother. I decided not to tell Shawn because he had stopped calling me. We hung out a few more times, but only in the middle of the night. He kept vampire hours. I wanted so much more from him that he couldn’t provide. I was desperate for him and he let me have him and then he didn’t.
I hadn’t planned to tell my brother, but it just fell out of my mouth when he called me.
“I just found out that I’m pregnant.” I said.
“No.” I told him.
“For fuck’s sake, Frannie….” he said.
After a pause, he said, “You must have really wanted to tell somebody.”
I felt sick and swollen and sad. Every time I went to the bathroom, I would look for spots of blood in my underwear, as if this nightmare would just end. I thought that I was going insane. Like how could something like this happen to me? It was as if I was immune to getting pregnant. Like I had been vaccinated. I had slept with Shawn a handful of times and we mostly used condoms. But there were definitely times that we didn’t. I had always been so focused on getting AIDS and not getting pregnant. Shawn said he got tested regularly for work.
“It’s like you won’t be able to relax until you get AIDS.” my friend Rich from high school had said to me once.
“You know, you’re probably right.” I said laughing.
“Just use fucking condoms, dude. What the fuck?”
“I don’t know what the fuck.” I answered.
We were in a diner out in Jersey. I had just gotten back from getting my quarterly AIDS test results at Planned Parenthood and was uplifted by yet another negative result. I was sitting in a vinyl booth with a purse filled with free condoms. He was right, why didn’t I just use condoms? The thing is, I did use condoms. And then I didn’t. What I did was that I would get into a sex relationship with someone and we would use condoms. And then we would get AIDS tests or show each other our AIDS tests paperwork and then start fucking without the condoms.
And then I got pregnant from getting so many AIDS tests.
I took another pregnancy test thinking maybe it would all disappear, but it double-lined right away like it was mad at me. At least it wasn’t an AIDS test, I thought to myself sitting in the bathroom staring at the crumbling tile and the moldy grout. I went downstairs and sat on my deserted futon island. I was pregnant and living in a fucking dining room.
What a loser, I thought.
And then I decided that I would move to California and raise this random baby.
I wouldn’t tell anyone. I would pick up tons of shifts at Uncle Joe’s and I would leave Jersey when I had enough money to get by for a while. I would figure out a way to live as a single mom with a baby in the bright happy sun. Yeah, right. That makes total sense, I thought. And then I thought about what friends I could call. But the shame was too thick that I couldn’t talk to anyone. Telling people would make it too real. I told my brother and that was enough.
When you get an abortion for the first time, nobody tells you what an emotional roller coaster it will be in the aftermath. Nobody tells you that your body will be in shock from being pregnant and then not being pregnant. Nobody tells you that there will be a festering well of tremendous grief to grapple with for months, years.
And then you find your way to the clinic in a state of suspended reality, as you have been hovering between becoming a mother unless you do something about it and then that possibility being extracted from your body like a rotten tooth. It’s like nothing else in the world because the raw power that you hold, your ability to one minute be a woman containing a growing fetus and then the next hiring someone destroy that fetus has a witchy kind of power.
I took the bus alone to the clinic, which was about a half hour ride through the dense, loud landscape that is inner-city Jersey. It was a clear sunny day. I wore an oversized navy blue overcoat and sweatpants. I had never felt so alone. I was tempted to reel Shawn back into my life for holding him responsible. The thought of him nursing me in bed after the procedure, how bonding over this severely existential experience might bring him back into my life was fleeting, because I knew that he would just fade away.
The clinic waiting room was almost worse than the abortion. A teenager who looked barely fourteen with a face full of piercings, flanked by her haggard, sleep-deprived mother and her weepy, inconsolable boyfriend with pink hair. A middle-aged suburbanite in a tracksuit and nice jewelry attempting to lose herself in a glossy magazine. A Latina woman with giant hoop earrings. So many crying babies, so many clingy toddlers, these painful reminders that we were about to kill those chances.
When I came to, I was given a lollypop, a fistful of antibiotics and a pink slip to get the fuck out. But I sat for a while in the sickly-lit recovery area, waiting for the meds to wear off. There were about ten of us down there, lined up in a row of hard plastic chairs, all clad in flimsy gowns, sucking on lollypops like sad children. All of us lost in a melancholy daze of post-anesthesia. One woman, twenty-something and boisterous with a nest of blond hair, had opted out of general anesthesia. She bragged about how she’d given birth a three times. How she could handle the pain. She wasn’t sucking on a lollypop. She just looked tired, like she had to go home to a house full of kids and a gross husband and would rather just convalesce in the post-abortion dungeon.
I was dizzy and nauseous on the bus ride back to Milltown, all the braking and so many stops. I could have taken a cab, but I felt like such a degenerate asshole that I didn’t want to be intimate in a space with another human being. I wanted nothing more than to crawl into bed and not come out for a long time. I called out of work, telling Rob that I had the flu. He was annoyed but had no choice but to be okay with it, people get sick. And then I thumbtacked a heavy blanket over my windows to keep out the light. Everyone in the house left me alone, as if they knew. I was like a sick animal that had gone into the woods to die alone. I subsisted on a diet of toast and cream of wheat cereal, which I took up to my garret and consumed in bed.
And then after a few days, I got out of bed and removed the abortion blanket from the window. Mike had started lurking near my bedroom door, knocking even though I wouldn’t answer. When I snapped at him to go away, that I was just sick, I knew it was time to get the fuck up and face my life.
It was a crisp autumn afternoon and the sun was blaring hard into my eyes while I walked through Milltown. I had been living in the dark and it hurt to be outside. Because of the cost of the abortion and because I had missed a few shifts, I was broke until the weekend. But I borrowed a twenty from Mike, after apologizing for snapping at him of course. And then I sat in Barnes and Noble in Union Square and nursed a coffee in the café. I flipped through a tattered copy of ArtForum. It felt so complicated being back in the world again and even though I was tempted to go back to the blanket cave, I headed downtown to hopefully catch a sad foreign film at the Angelika, perfect medicine for my condition.
And then I saw Shawn cross Houston. I know it sounds crazy, but it was him I promise.
He was wearing his usual black on black, smoking a cigarette and walking with his head down. At first, I was just going to keep walking towards the theatre. But I quickly crossed Houston and headed into Soho. This person had been dominating the shit out of my consciousness for the past month. But I didn’t really know him. I had never been to his apartment and even though I knew his cousin, I didn’t know much about his family. And even though got me pregnant, he knew nothing about it. He knew next to nothing about me. My body ached from the getting gutted and I still felt so raw and exposed. I had been shelled. I caught up to him in front of a deli off Greene Street.
“Holy shit.” he said, startled.
“Sorry, I saw you walking from a few blocks away….”
He hugged me hard. I wanted to tell him everything. How I had been so needy. How I wanted him to be something that he wasn’t, which was emotionally available and actually wanting to commit to a relationship with me. How he got me pregnant. How I was so ashamed that I didn’t know how to talk about it with anyone, so I dealt with it by myself.
But I didn’t say anything. We walked a few blocks together and then sat down on a metal grate in front of an art gallery.
It was a quiet cobblestone street, just a few people sitting at desks in sparse art galleries and tending to retail shops with minimal inventory. A tall, painfully skinny woman in leather pants who may or may not have been a model walked by with her standard poodle. She has probably had an abortion, I thought to myself. A man sat in a truck looking at a clipboard. Shawn and I smoked and sat there not saying much to each other.
“You seem bummed.” He said.
“Yeah, I got really sick last week and had to stay in bed for a few days.”
“That sucks.” He said.
“I put a blanket over my window.” I told him.
“You got depressed?”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Because that’s what depressed people do.” Shawn said.
I stared up at the apartments with the floor to ceiling windows and thought about what it would be like to live in one of those lofts. How if I lived there that I would be happy. How I would share it with a partner. We would make pots of espresso in the morning and read the paper at a chunky wooden farmhouse table with mismatched chairs. And then we would retreat into separate studios at the back of the loft, to tend to our work until evening, whatever that would be. My family would be proud of me. They would think that I was a successful person who lived in unconventional yet prime real estate with a partner who was a good fit for me.
In other words, I wouldn’t be a bartender with a useless philosophy degree who lived with a pile of scrappy people in a rundown brownstone in Milltown. I wouldn’t be the kind of person who would be sitting post-abortion with the person who got me pregnant but had no idea. And I would never hang a heavy blanket from one of those amazing windows. I would never want to keep out the light.
“I gotta go. I’m going to see a depressing movie.” I said.
“Oh, yeah. I’m not into those kinds of movies.” He told me.
“Then, I’ll see you later.” I said.
“Yeah, you will.”
We hugged quick and disconnected. Something was gone. Walking down the block and headed towards the theatre, I laughed at myself because I could never be with a person who didn’t like depressing movies.
Fuck that guy, I said aloud.
Because you can do that in the streets of New York City.
Frances Badalamenti was born and raised in Queens and Suburban Jersey, but now lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband and son. Her memoir entitled, I Don’t Blame You, will be published in Spring ’19 by Unsolicited Press. This story is an excerpt from her novel.