Is this your first time?

By Briana Gwin


There are things you can’t ask at the clinic. Among your prescribed list of acceptable questions: Where is the bathroom? How long will this take? Can I drive myself home? The subtext lies in the vastness of the realm of the unspoken, the unspeakable. How will I feel afterwards? When will the pain stop? And Why is this happening to me? 


There’s a price tag on your freedom, and it isn’t cheap. It’s five hundred and sixty-five dollars if you really want to go through with this thing. Among the questions they ask you: Is this your first time? Have you been here before? No one asks if you’re sure — if this is the right step for you, if you really want to go through with this. You are shaking in your seat. You are small and ephemeral, the last glittering of your youth drained out in beads of sweat now clinging to your dingy shirt. Time is not on your side, they said when you called them over the phone yesterday, inquiring about standard procedures — so you plunge headfirst into your first adult decision. You haven’t finished college.


The worst part is when you get there. As you’re scanning the street, you’re looking for a sign on a building that will confirm your new reality. You think to yourself that even after it’s done, you’ll never forget this moment, locking eyes with the front of the place that’s going to cut beneath your skin to extract a part of you and throw it away, and you’re the one who’s paying for it. Your wallet isn’t the only thing feeling empty as you slide a wad of untraceable cash across the countertop. You almost want a receipt to remind you it all went somewhere — existed once. You existed once.


Or else the worst part is walking in and feeling a mix of shame and relief — the girls already seated in the waiting room are so much younger than you, eyes all downcast as they sit in stiff silence next to the worn-out women who are presumably their mothers. Relief because you are not the only one. Relief because you feel slightly better about the fact that you are almost old enough for this to seem normal, because there are girls still in high school making this mistake and you are not one of them. Shame because you are them.


Your parents don’t know you’re here for more reasons than you can count. You never wanted kids, and it was a constant reassurance you uttered to them as they exchanged wary glances and tried to remind you your whole future depended on you making it out unscathed, unmarred by mistakes like this. Like me? You want to ask them now, but of course, you don’t.


The decision to tell your partner in crime was a tremendous one, one that carved up your gut so much you wonder how you didn’t just lose the thing on the spot. You give him exactly one day’s notice before the operation is set to take place. You don’t ask him for a penny, a single cent. This is your burden to carry, and the last thing you need is to lose two people — two parts of you — at once. You drove on the way there. He accompanies you for support he is incapable of giving. His hand is cold in yours, and he doesn’t speak unless spoken to. His voice has been stripped of its bravado and that trademark sheen of devil-may-care confidence. He stares at the phone in his lap as he sits beside you in the waiting room; it is dark and turned off — perhaps he is looking into his own reflection, or nothing at all.

Or: the worst part is in the moments before you tell him, in your small, built-up silences that he will attribute to your general fatigue or aloofness. You fear how the lights would change behind his enigmatic, soul-snatching eyes, maybe almost imperceptibly, until a new reality would reveal itself so much later. It was just one look into these eyes that drew you to him in the first place, but now you imagine he is repulsed beside you, the lively hazel of his irises melting into something stale and sallow. You fear you have become his regret, his folly. You wish this wasn’t your first time doing this. You could have handled it all on your own if you were older, braver, more capable. With the ugliness of your mistake laid bare on the table, you, laid bare on a table, unmasked in harsh halogen light, two pairs of eyes — yours, and now his — confirm what you had vehemently denied in your head in the days leading up to this moment, taking not one or two but five different pregnancy tests from different brands and different drugstores, as well as one blood test and one urine test the day before at the gynecologist.

He never holds you and you never cry. It has only been a year since the two of you have been together, an item without a label (his choice), but now with the new weight of deep and scarring consequence (no one’s choice). Your tears must be trapped in the same void where the proof of his empathy is being held captive. You wonder if he could ever truly love you.


You doubt it.


You remember the night it happened as though it were yesterday. Well, you do and you don’t. You remember two flimsy specks of paper, one dot in your palm and one in his, like snowflakes. You remember him explaining that you should keep yours under your tongue, that it will take about an hour to set in. You are young, and on this night you are reckless. You don’t drink, you don’t smoke, you don’t party — but you are tired of feeling boring. No one says it, but there’s always a look of disappointment on their faces when they light up and you say you’ll just sit out. On this night, you are breaking down, but in the moment, you will tell yourself you are breaking free. You will sacrifice your purity and the label, “goody-two-shoes,” for something more fitting of a college girl: “adventurous.” Are we having fun yet?


Acid is unpredictable. You feel light, untethered. You forget all about the pressure you’ve put on yourself to make your parents proud, to overachieve in school, to hold it all together. You are a perfectionist, you are a planner; you were raised to be. You are the product of high hopes, broken records and good reputations. You let go. A box of yellow cereal scatters silently to the carpeted floor, small yellow orbs like small yellow suns all spread across your deep brown carpet – a perfect contrast. There is no room for reflection or afterthought here. The mirrors have been covered with bedsheets and the picture frames holding photos of your parents’ forever proud and expectant smiles have been set on their surfaces face-down. Like this, it is easy to forget that this apartment was a gift, temporary, a place for solace and study away from campus so you can concentrate on beating yourself up about not being smarter.


Sitting in the clinic, you wish more than anything that you were smarter.


You don’t believe everything you hear — you are a cautious skeptic. Still, it was not the confirmation that you were pregnant, the diagnosis by your gynecologist, that was the most unbelievable thing you’d ever heard. It was two words that broke through your impenetrable bubble, your drifting-through-the-days stupor, shattering your illusions of life as usual. They were words you’d long since given up on hearing, the probability of their existence hammered down to slimmer and slimmer chances with each passing and more ridiculous argument. I’m sorry, he’d said, and you felt as though your heart had plummeted to the floor with a cold and rotten thump. You’d never heard this prideful boy say these words before; are you happy now? You’d braced yourself the whole morning for words that you couldn’t put delicately, that couldn’t be squeezed into a conversation over breakfast between a bite of cold pancakes and a sip of tepid orange juice.

I’m so sorry, he said, tears springing to his eyes. He remembered something you didn’t about the night it happened. You had thought you were careless about your birth control, but he admits that even though he knew you had stopped taking it recently, because you had told him, that somewhere between the cereal spilling onto the floor in your apartment the night you dropped acid and the moment when the humming in your brain finally let down long enough for you to distinguish the colors on the walls around you from the projections you’d imagined there to be, he’d fucked you. You had said “don’t” so weakly it was almost funny — it must have been, right? Because he laughed as you trembled beneath him, your last semi-cohesive memory of that night now forming, a solid blur, a dark vision of the boy you thought you loved, morphing into a monster. He advanced when you backed away, he dragged you to the carpeted floor. He covered your mouth with his as you nervously stuttered, Who are you? The rest became a ringing echo in your head, your mouthpiece disconnected, no longer transmitting aloud, Who am I? Where are you? Who are you?

You had been tripping on acid, and he had been high on your fear, your vulnerability, your desperation to prove something. And now this: an admission that he didn’t pull out. His rationale? He had convinced himself that he was sterile, a belief determined solely by his own aversion to the thought of having children in that moment.


So you didn’t imagine the sound of your own “no” coddling you back into a safe space in your brain. Yes, the more you don’t want to remember, the more you do. Your body was a cold castle under siege that night. Your “no” was one that said you tried your best, but that it is okay to fail sometimes. You are young and you are imperfect. You are not invincible. You will try again tomorrow, you think, but you have no idea what tomorrow means. In fact, when tomorrow comes, it isn’t tomorrow at all, the consequence of yesterday. It is today: simply another day, one in which you’ve forgotten the plot points of the previous night’s events, one which has you preoccupied with all the menial tasks of putting one foot in front of the other, and maybe even trying to forget more than you already don’t remember. Days pass, and then weeks, and then months. It is almost too late to change tomorrow.


When your name is called, it no longer sounds like home. You shuffle forward, ankles invisibly bound by a tightness you can’t slip out of (your skin). You are led into a side room the size of a walk-in closet. You sit on the inclined patient bench, and you roll up your shirt when she tells you to. She asks you a question, or maybe three, in monotone. She doesn’t look into your eyes; she doesn’t touch your skin. She is careful to hold the plastic transducer at the end of its length, as if to grant herself as much possible distance from contamination. The jelly on your stomach is cold, but not colder than what sits just beneath: not for the first time, you realize, there are questions you can’t ask. There is a part of you that exists in this moment, that after today will disappear forever, and you will go the rest of your life without ever having seen it. The screen remains tilted away from you the entire time, and then you are dismissed. You return to the waiting room. No questions.


Your final destination is nothing short of a film noir washed in monochrome blue. Cold lights cast an eerie glow over the second table you will lay on today. But this one is different. Unlike the woman who glimpsed what was beneath your skin, the team of two or three doctors hovering over you here will be reaching into you and removing that part of you that you can’t afford to keep. It’s cold, you say to no one in particular, because the sheets are crisp from the sterile iciness of the room. There’s an AC blasting at your taut and chill-puckered skin, adding insult to injury. You are a specimen in a deep freezer. You’re going to feel a big pinch, a shrewd-eyed woman tells you as she approaches the table in scrubs. Where do we go when we are not in this world? you want to ask, because you’ve never been under before — but you’ve heard it’s not at all like sleeping. You’ve heard there’s a possibility you’ll never wake up. She pushes your sleeve up, and you don’t have time to utter a word. The antiseptic is rubbed in one harsh circle on a small spot on your upper arm, and then, she’s right, there’s a skin-splitting pain for one fraction of a second.


That’s all it takes, your parents always reminded you: one fraction of a second and your life could be over.


Just past the divider, the opposite side of the room is not blue, but yellow — or else all the walls are white and it is the lights hanging above each opposite side that are so drastically different. This yellow is not warm, but feverish and sickly, amplified in its dizzying intensity by the way in which you are shaken awake, a bit violently, on the same arm where a peeling-off bandaid has been pasted on to half-hide the hole in your skin. You follow instructions without resistance. You are a blank slate, a hard drive wiped clean. You are new to this moment as if nothing existed just before. You are just barely holding onto the tiniest sliver of a thought: Who are you? Who was I? Where are you? Who am I?

There are no words of any concrete substance lingering in your brain or your throat. You stand on wobbling legs and they tell you you will feel like you have to pee, but you don’t. They tell you you’ll bleed a lot, so take care of that. They tell you to go sit in a chair in the yellow corner with the other girls who’ve just emerged onto this side until you can stand properly and collect your belongings, and you do.


You don’t really remember the car ride home. You stared out the window as he drove back, and for once, he didn’t blast the AC when you were cold, lower the windows when you wanted it quiet, or amp up the stereo blasting backwoods country music when you wanted to sleep — or else he did, but none of it mattered, absolutely nothing, so you can’t recall. You don’t remember much of anything except that when you got to where you were going, you crawled onto a mattress on the floor and wondered what you’d see if you closed your eyes. For a long time, you didn’t close your eyes. You were left alone because the father of your unborn child had decided he’d had enough pain just looking into yours, and he headed toward the city with a backpack so you knew he wasn’t coming home. He texted you at 3 a.m., an afterthought. The trains coming back Uptown stopped running at 1:50 a.m., and you both knew it.


In time, the bleeding stops, and your face becomes taut and wiry. You can laugh dryly at a bad joke, you can drink a shot without cringing. You do. It is years before you speak about what happened to you. You silently observe your friends and family, playing out endless scenarios in your head of what they might say, how they would react if you told them. You don’t tell anyone who matters.

You’ve rehearsed the string of events in your head enough times that you’ve got it down to a simple mantra. You drift far off the first time you describe it all out loud. It’s like walking out of an open back door and leaving a voicemail playing out on speaker. You hear a voice, no longer yours, saying, I was raped by someone I loved. I got pregnant. I got an abortion. The eyes that take you in are horrified or else simply incredulous, because how could you say it so matter-of-factly? But you are different now; you know better. These are the facts.

The boy who raped you says he cannot sleep with you again for a long time because he is traumatized. You are quarantined, but only until he gets hard again, which of course isn’t long at all. You’d be surprised how quickly they bounce back as long as you agree to pretend like nothing happened.

You live with the boy who raped you for another two years before finally separating. You don’t know if you love him, but you have become “partners” in every sense of that now harrowing term. It is enough to try and navigate your existence beside the only other person who knew what happened, and knew that version of you that existed before it happened. Every month, just before your period, you wonder if you are pregnant. Your cycle comes irregularly and Google searches confirm pregnancy as the most probable cause of every slightly abnormal symptom in your body, from the heaviness in your breasts, to spotting one month instead of fully bleeding, and the occasional sharp pain in your stomach. It is just a dull panic in your chest that quickly subsides once you realize, a bit distantly now, you already know how it all works. You can see it working again. You can keep another secret and pay another wad of cash. It’s a month of working a couple extra shifts, and the clinic is only twenty minutes away. It’s almost cruel how simple it can be to do something so significant and so hard. You wonder why you haven’t had nightmares — in fact, you’ve barely dreamt at all. You play a return scenario over in your head, and the only thing that changes is your answer to that first question at the clinic. Is this your first time?

In his final months with you, he becomes the child you never had, and it takes everything out of you to hold him in this innocent light. He cries when you are gone for too long, or when you text him, almost an afterthought, to say you won’t be coming home. Like this, the definition of your ending is not so much a crime as it is a tragedy. He wasn’t perfect. He made a mistake. There was never so much a dialogue between the two of you as there was one person clamoring deftly over the other, a discordant mashing of shouts into the abyss. You wanted different things: you, a version of him that you could say you needed. Him, absolutely everything of you, the world of a person that did not exist. He only says one thing about that time of your lives when everything changed forever, and it’s many months later, maybe a year. It would have been the best thing that ever happened to us, he says. You don’t believe him, but you believe that he believes it in this moment. He loves you now because you have mothered him, you have shown him the care you are capable of giving once you’ve given yourself away. Now untethered, you ask yourself: It was five hundred and sixty-five dollars for your abortion, but how much did it cost you to keep him? 

Headshot of Briana Gwin

Briana Gwin is a New-York based essayist, poet and hybrid fiction writer. She has recently completed her MFA in Creative Writing at The New School, and is the author of one collection of essays in progress. She currently lives in an apartment on the outskirts of NYC with five sphynx cats and twenty-nine plants. When not writing, she is either tending to one of the two, or reading, or venturing into the bowels of Brooklyn in search of more plants.

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