There’s this story about a girl who goes to see her gynaecologist,’ I tell the gynaecologist. ‘She gets up early in the morning, while her housemates are still sleeping, and goes for a run. When she comes home, she’s all sweaty, but she doesn’t have time to shower before her appointment. So she grabs a towel and wipes herself off. You know, down there.’
‘Uh-huh,’ says Dr Hill as she holds the speculum against my thigh. ‘This might be a bit cold.’ She inserts it into me. It is a bit cold, and uncomfortable. I worry for a moment that there will be a sharp edge or angle on there that she doesn’t know about. ‘Go on,’ she says. ‘So she wipes herself off –’
‘Yeah. Then she goes to the gyno and takes off her pants, gets on the chair, spreads her – oh.’ I hold my breath as she cranks the thing open. It squeaks as it pushes against me.
‘Lie back,’ she says. ‘Breathe. Concentrate on the bear.’ I press my head back into the chair and stare at the poster stuck to the ceiling above me, a photo print of a bear standing on a grassy hilltop. ‘That’s it,’ she says, as she gets me wide open.
‘So the girl spreads her legs, and the gyno comes in – it’s a man – and he comes into the room, stands in front of her, looks between her legs, and says, “Oh, I see you dressed up for me today.”’
Dr Hill scrapes a cotton bud against my cervix. The discomfort feels real and far away, like someone yelling your name outside your front door while you’re sleeping.
‘And the deal is, the girl lives with this raver chick, and the towel she grabbed to wipe herself off was covered with the chick’s face glitter. So the gyno thinks she’s applied it especially for him.’
‘Urban legend,’ says Dr Hill as she winds the speculum closed.
‘Really?’ I say, sitting up and leaning back on my elbows.
I inhale as she pulls the metal out of me. Inside I feel like I felt in fifth form, when Becky Addis and I got drunk in the park and she shoved her hand down my jeans and put her fingers inside me with fingernails that were too long.
‘Vaginas don’t sweat,’ says Dr Hill. ‘Not inside anyway. I’ll go to the lab and check on your other tests. Why don’t you get dressed and meet me in my office.’
I expect AIDS, because I had sex with this Irish guy who told me he’d gone to see prostitutes in Amsterdam. I expect herpes because this drummer Chris went down on me and I found a tube of Zovirax on the floor under his bed the next morning. I expect HPV because I saw a segment about it on 60 Minutes last week. I expect chlamydia, gonorrhoea, hep A, B, C, because I’m a floozy whose back catalogue of lovers should be organized with the Dewey Decimal System. But I do not expect a foetus. And that’s what it is.
‘Do you know who the father is?’ Dr Hill asks me.
Yes,’ I say.
‘Was this something the two of you planned?’
‘No,’ I say. ‘Complete accident.’
‘What precautions were you taking?’
‘He was, uh, pulling out.’
‘The withdrawal method?’ she asks. She shakes her head as I nod mine. ‘Very risky.’ She opens a desk drawer and takes out a pamphlet with a photo of a pensive-looking girl on the front. Above her head it reads, So… you’re pregnant.
‘I don’t need that,’ I say.
‘Are you sure?’ She holds the pamphlet towards me like a stubborn canvasser on a street corner.
‘I know my options,’ I say. ‘I don’t want the baby.’
She puts her hands in her lap. ‘Well, then,’ she says. ‘I guess you’re looking at adoption, or a termination.’
‘I want a termination,’ I tell her. ‘Is that still legal in this country?’
She leans back in her desk chair and sighs.‘Thirty-five years of fighting to maintain our rights and every second girl who sits in that chair asks me that question.’
‘I’m not American,’ I remind her. ‘How soon can I get this done?’
‘Well –’ She pushes the mouse across the mousepad to wake her computer.‘It’s too late to book you in somewhere today, and most places will be closed over the weekend.’
She types something in and I look around her office. It’s almost empty, except for the desk, the two chairs, the computer, a phone and a poster on the wall telling me to ask my doctor about the IUD coil.
‘What’s the IUD coil?’ I ask her.
‘One thing at a time,’ she says. ‘I found an open appointment, on Monday at two thirty, at a centre in South San Francisco. They offer a free and confidential counselling service on site. I also suggest you talk this decision over with someone beforehand. A close friend or family member. The father, perhaps?’ She rummages in the drawer for another pamphlet.
Suddenly I’m aware of how alone I am in this city, how far away all my best friends and family are. Suddenly I’m wishing that my teenage experimentation with Becky Addis had taken; that she and I were now living together in a cottage on the coast of Brighton, clipping our fingernails as foreplay, flushing our contraceptive pills down the toilet and laughing triumphantly at our risk-free lesbian life.
Being unexpectedly pregnant is like learning that someone you love has died.You remember, then you forget, then all of a sudden it dawns on you again.The brain separates the enormous shock into many minor shocks and doles them out at five-minute intervals. I walk to the BART station. I’m pregnant. I buy a ticket. I’m pregnant. I ride the train and get out at 24th Street. I’m pregnant. I buy a pack of cigarettes at the corner store. I give the woman seven dollars and she hands me coins. I’m pregnant. I go to see Luke at the Common Room.
‘Hey, I’m pregnant.’
‘What?’ He can’t hear me. He’s standing behind the espresso machine, his manager Katie is at the roaster, and Slow Club is crooning through the speakers. ‘Did you get my text messages?’ he asks loudly.
‘Probably not all of them,’ I say. ‘You filled up the memory on my phone so I couldn’t receive new ones.’
‘Well, I wouldn’t have to send so many if you just answered one.’He doses into the portafilter and tamps it down. ‘What are you doing here anyway?’ He slams the instrument harder than he needs to into the machine and positions a cup under the spouts. ‘I told you it makes me uncomfortable to see you.’
Then we have the same fight we’ve been having for the last three weeks.
‘I’ve been coming here since the first day I got to the city. Way before I even met you.’
‘Well, I was working here a year before you even arrived in the States.’
‘This cafe is one of the reasons I moved to this neighbourhood.’
‘Well, there are other coffee shops in the Mission District.’
‘Why don’t you work in one of them, then?’
‘Are you fucking serious?’ he says. ‘Low-fat latte for Allie,’ he calls out.
I’m pregnant, I think.
‘Look,’ he says. ‘I still love you. If you don’t want to be in contact with me, you can’t come in here.’
‘Oh yeah?’ I say. ‘If you’re so in love with me, why did you change your MySpace status to single?’
‘You’re the one who said you wanted a clean break.’
‘And you took my band out of your top twelve.’
‘Americano for George. Why do you even care? Why are you even checking my MySpace?’
‘It’s bookmarked on my computer.’
‘So un-bookmark it.’
‘Fine,’ I say.
‘Fine.’ He glares down at me over the row of glasses and mugs on top of the machine. I glare right back. ‘I created a new espresso blend,’ he says. ‘A Colombian microlot and a Cup of Excellence from Brazil. Ripe cherry acidity with a maple syrup finish. Really sweet.’
‘What’s it called?’
‘Straight Shooter. Wanna try it?’
Then he says, ‘Why are you dressed so sexy? Do you have a date? Are you seeing someone else already? Do I mean so little to you?’ And I remember the fifth, sixth and seventh months of our relationship.
On his break we go into the green bean room. I sit on a sack of Santa Isabel. He leans back on a stack of Bolivians. It’s cooler in here than the rest of the cafe; the beans absorb the heat. I’m pregnant, I think, looking him up and down. But it’s not the baby that’s making my stomach churn. He’s wearing his tight black jeans and a very low-necked white T-shirt, and an open grey and blue cowboy shirt with the sleeves rolled up. His hair is messy, his eyes bright blue, and he’s got a few days’ worth of stubble on his face. I can see three of his tattoos: the ECG squiggles over his heart, the vintage gun on his right wrist and the numbered lines on the inside of his left arm:
‘It’s where I write my to-do list,’ he said last June on our first date, as we sat spinning right-to-left-and-back on barstools at the Dovre Club.Then he took out a pen and scrawled my name on all three lines, then again and again, all the way down his arm – Claire Claire Claire Claire – before dropping the biro on the floor and reaching for me. His teeth pressed against my lower lip drew blood, and when I climbed on to his lap and wrapped my legs around him, the bartender told us we had to leave. He rode with me on the handlebars of his fixed-gear to his apartment on Harrison, and I forgot we weren’t using anything until he pulled out of me, wrapped a fist around himself, and came into his hand.
‘You can pay for half the procedure.’
‘How much is that gonna be?’
‘I think it costs two hundred and fifty dollars,’ I say. ‘But I might just be getting that from Dirty Dancing.’
‘Hey, thanks for not knocking me up,’ I said, reaching across the floor for my cigarettes.
‘Of course,’ he said, wiping his palm on the sheet, on the part of the bed closest to the wall. ‘I’m nothing if not a gentleman.’
Today, in here, the sight of him, both put-together and dishevelled, and the smell, that deep, sweet, caramel scent of roasting coffee that sticks to his clothes, his skin, his hair – that scent that is so strongly linked to him in my mind that some mornings just walking past a Starbucks on my way to class and inhaling is enough to get me wet inside my underwear – it all almost makes me forget the fifth, sixth and seventh months of our relationship. For a moment I want to turn and lock the door, and walk the few steps it would take for my hipbones to be pressed against his jeans. I want to stand on my tiptoes till my face can reach his face. And as if he’s thinking the same thing, he clears his throat and says,‘What are you wearing under that blazer?’
‘What about under the tights?’ he asks. I smile up at him. Then he says,‘Why are you dressed so sexy? Do you have a date? Are you seeing someone else already? Do I mean so little to you?’ And I remember the fifth, sixth and seventh months of our relationship. So I leave the door unlocked and I try to breathe only through my mouth. I stare at the floor, scattered with unroasted beans, and I tell him,‘I’m pregnant.’
The first thing he does is slap a palm to his forehead in a cartoonish gesture of shock that almost makes me laugh. His fingers are brown with coffee stains.‘Is it mine?’ he asks.
‘What kind of a –’ I try to look hurt and insulted like women do in the movies when men ask them this, but I can’t maintain it for long. ‘Yes,’ I say. ‘You’re the only person I’ve slept with since we broke up.’
There’s a knock on the door, and Katie pokes her head in. ‘Luke – oh hey, Claire – are you almost done in here? There’s a line out the door and Jackie’s pulling horrible shots. I want to put her back on the register.’
‘I’ll be right out,’ he says. When she’s gone, he turns to me and takes my hand. ‘Hey. When can we talk about this?’
‘I’ve already decided. I’m not having it.’
‘Huh.’ He looks at the wall, pasted with flyers about workplace safety and the minimum wage in California.‘Is there anything I can do?’
‘You can pay for half the procedure.’
‘How much is that gonna be?’
‘I think it costs two hundred and fifty dollars,’ I say. ‘But I might just be getting that from Dirty Dancing.’
It’s almost four o’clock and outside it’s getting windy. The fog is rolling in to the north and the south, sparing our little bowl of a neighbourhood, where it is always sunny. A block away from where I live on Shotwell Street, I run into Sean. He’s got his laptop bag over his shoulder and he’s wearing a fedora.
‘Hey,’ he says.‘I put you in my new book.You’re the Scottish girl in the pop band. Chapter Six.’
‘I’m English,’ I say. ‘Let’s go. Rematch.’ I put out my hand and we grip each other’s fingers and start moving our thumbs from side to side.
‘One, two, three, four,’ we say in unison. ‘I declare a thumb war.’
‘OK, kiss,’ I say, pushing my thumb against his for a second. ‘Now, bow.’ We both bend our thumbs at the knuckle.‘Into your corners, come out fighting.’ It doesn’t take long for him to pin me, his thumb covering mine completely, and he takes his time counting up to knockout.
After he’s won three rounds, he asks me, ‘When are we gonna go on a date?’
‘I told you,’ I tell him. ‘I’m not attracted to you.’
‘Shut up,’ he says.‘Seriously, when can we go out?’
‘I don’t see you in that way,’ I say. ‘All I can offer you is friendship.’
‘You’re not scaring me,’ he says.‘How about Wednesday?’
‘I don’t date writers,’ I say. ‘I really can’t stand writers.’
‘Maybe Thursday’s better?’
‘Don’t you people realize that nobody reads books any more?’
‘I want to go on a date with you. To SFMOMA. Next week.’
‘I can’t next week,’ I say.‘I’m having an abortion next week.’
‘Shut up,’ he says. ‘You look hot today. Meet me right here on Thursday at five.’
‘I won’t be here,’ I say as he walks away.
‘It’s a date!’
My housemates are giggling in the living room when I get home.
‘Claire,’ Sophie calls out. ‘Can you come film us? We’re trying to make a video response for YouTube.’
She has her hair pulled back and is wearing a white onesie. She’s sitting on Andrew’s lap. I take the camera from her and stand across from them. When I press record, Sophie starts gaga-ing like a baby. Andrew holds out his index finger and Sophie bites it.
‘Ow, Charlie bit me,’ Andrew says in an attempt at an English accent. Sophie clamps down again. ‘Ouch, ouch, ouch.That really hurt, Charlie, and it’s still hurting.’
When they finish, I stop filming and they collapse with laughter.
‘Let’s do another take,’ says Sophie.
‘Let’s watch it first,’ says Andrew.
‘Yeah,yeah,’says Sophie.‘Claire,you wanna see the original?’
‘No, thanks.’ I hand her the camera. ‘I don’t think babies are funny.’
In my room, I find my phonecard on the desk and follow the automated prompts until I’m talking to my mother in London. It’s night time there.
‘Hiya,’ I say.
‘Hiya,’ she says.
‘I need to talk to you about something.’
‘Hold on, how do I get this thing on speakerphone? Meredith, can you do it? I can’t find the button. I don’t have my glasses. Can you see it?’
‘Hi Claire,’ says my brother Paul, when they’ve got it worked out.
‘Hiya,’ says my sister Meredith.
‘Hi Claire Bear,’ says my father.
‘Hi Claire,’ says my ex-boyfriend Alistair.
‘Hey,’ says my sister-in-law Wendy.
‘Hello sweetheart,’ says my grandmother.
‘Hi everyone,’ I say. ‘Wait, what’s Alistair doing there?’
There’s a long silence and I picture everyone sitting at the kitchen table, eyeing each other nervously and rolling crumbs over the tablecloth with their fingers.
Mum was supposed to tell you,’ says Meredith. ‘Al and I are together now.’
‘I was planning to tell her in December when she comes to visit,’ my mother says.
‘Oh my god,’ I say.
‘Charlie!’ I hear my housemates yelling in the other room. ‘Charlie, that really hurts!’
‘What’s the big deal?’ my brother says. ‘I thought you were the one who broke it off.’
‘She was,’ Alistair says.
‘Because I moved to America,’ I say.
‘You said you were glad to be leaving him,’ Meredith says.
‘Cheers for keeping the family secrets,’ I tell her.
‘Why don’t you meet a nice American boy?’ my grandmother asks.
‘But sometimes good people just find each other,’ she says.
‘Let’s talk about this when you come to visit,’ my father says. ‘They might not even be together by then.’
‘Dad!’ says Meredith. ‘We will be. We definitely will be.’
‘I’m gonna go now,’ I say. ‘Bye everyone. Bye Nanna.’
‘Bye sweetheart,’ my grandmother says. I hang up before anyone else can speak.
On Saturday morning I take BART under the bay to visit James and Amanda in Berkeley. They’ve moved into a new house, wooden and cosy, with a deck overlooking a backyard full of trees.Amanda is pulling a frittata out of the oven when I arrive, and James is in the living room, mixing up mimosas.When I tell them about the baby, they exchange a glance.
‘Well, if it was a boy, it’d be tall like Luke,’ Amanda says.
‘And clingy and obsessive,’ James says.
‘Just what the world needs,’ I say.
‘How did this happen?’ Amanda asks.
‘I’m an idiot.’ Neither of them responds to this. I wonder what they’ll say about it later, after I’m gone.
The three of us eat out on the deck and talk about our dissertations – a conversation that inevitably devolves into complaints about our meagre stipends,the user-unfriendliness of EndNote, and the unavailability of our supervisors.
‘Do you ever think that our relationships with our supervisors are like parent–child relationships?’ Amanda asks, shaking hot sauce on to her eggs. ‘We start out feeling completely dependent on them.We don’t do anything without getting their opinion or permission.’
‘Then they let us down,’ James says.
‘Then we realize they’re not perfect.’ Amanda puts her bare foot on James’s lap and he covers it with his hand.
‘And that they have other children to deal with too. So we resent them, and decide we don’t need them, and we strike out on our own.’
‘Yeah, but I made out with mine,’ I say. ‘So how does that fit into the analogy?’
‘Jesus,’ James says.‘Professor Fursten? Really?’
‘Is that bad?’
‘When do you find time to work, with all this stuff going on?’
‘In the holidays. Everyone goes home to their families. I stay in the city and work my arse off.’
‘That’s probably ten days a year,’ James says.
‘When do you two work?’
‘Monday to Friday,’ says Amanda.‘Nine to five.’
‘Wow, you guys are such grown-ups,’ I say. ‘Do you want a baby?’
‘I don’t think so.’ She shakes her head. ‘At least not one of our own.’
‘Maybe we’ll adopt one day,’ says James.
‘No, I mean, do you want this baby? I can have it and then hand it over.’
They laugh. ‘I definitely don’t want a kid right now,’ Amanda says.
‘Neither do I,’ James says.
‘Me neither,’ I say. ‘First I need a calmer life. Maybe get married like you guys.’
‘You think marriage is a calmer way of life?’ James asks.
‘It’s when the terrifying shit really begins,’ Amanda says.
‘What you need is a quieter life,’ James says. ‘So you can process all the craziness.’
‘Maybe you should move to Berkeley,’Amanda says.‘Come be our neighbour.’
‘I’d love to,’ I say. ‘But there’s a whole city to conquer over there. San Francisco is trying to kick my arse, and I can’t let it get the better of me.’
A screen door slams in a neighbouring yard and a woman calls to someone to bring her a sweater. Amanda starts humming what sounds like an M. Ward song. James pats her foot in three-four time. I look out at the fig tree, heavy with fruit, and I try to imagine a life in which monogamy didn’t feel like a locked cell, in which I always start wishing my cellmate would get released early for good behaviour.
‘You guys are so lucky,’ I say. ‘You have each other and you want each other.’
‘It’s true,’ Amanda says. ‘We’re lucky, but you know it’s not perfect. We’re both in the same department. We’re competing for funding, and we’re always busy and stressed out at the same time.’
‘Yeah, but at least you understand each other’s work.You can read each other’s papers.’
‘Uh-huh,’James says.‘Try sleeping next to the person who just correctly informed you that your entire thesis topic is flawed and untenable and you’ve just wasted two whole years of research.
‘So what you’re saying is, I should give Professor Fursten a call?’
I stand up and start clearing dishes.
‘Don’t do that,’ James tells me. ‘We’ll do it. You’re in a delicate condition.’
‘Oh don’t, that’s awful,’ Amanda says, smiling at me apologetically.
When it’s time to leave, they stand on the front porch and wave me goodbye.
‘There she goes,’ Amanda says.‘See you soon.’
‘Come back bearing stories,’ James calls after me.
Back in the city, I stop in at the Common Room. Luke is roasting, pouring beans from a bucket into the hopper of the Probat.
‘What’s cooking?’ I ask him.
‘Fucking decaf,’he says.‘I’m glad you stopped by.I wanted to tell you: I think this baby is the best thing that could have happened to us.’
‘What are you talking about?’
‘Think about it,’ he says. ‘I pulled out hundreds of times when we were together, and it worked fine. Then the one time we have sex after the break-up, and bam –’ he slams his fist into his palm,‘we make a kid.’
‘All that means,’ I say, ‘is that we’re both fertile.’
‘No, no.’ He turns back to the roaster, pulls out the trier, holds it under his nose and smells the beans. They’re the colour of wet sand. He puts it back. ‘This baby means more than that. It’s a sign that we’re supposed to be together.’
‘But I’m not keeping it,’ I say.
‘That’s even more reason to be together. An abortion is a big deal. I want to be there for you, in whatever way I can.’
‘Well, right now I’d love a gibraltar.’
He turns down the gas on the roaster, and goes behind the bar. I take a seat at a nearby table. All around me, people are sitting with coffee cups, staring into laptop screens.The girl at the table in front of me has a sticker of a peach stuck over her Apple logo. The guy to my left is working on a Word file entitled Start-Up:A Memoir.
‘Do I know you?’ he says, when he sees me looking. He has black curly hair and straight white American teeth.
‘No,’ I say, ‘I just thought I’d save you some time by telling you not to bother writing that memoir. Nobody reads books any more.’
‘This isn’t a book,’ he says. ‘It’s my senior thesis.’ He leans back in his chair.‘So what’s that accent? New Zealand?’
When Luke comes back, he puts the drink on the table and walks away. I take it and follow him over to the roaster. He checks on the beans again, then pushes a lever. The beans shower out of the drum and into the cooling tray.
‘Thanks for the drink,’ I say, sipping it. He doesn’t answer me. ‘What’s going on?’
‘Nothing,’ he says. ‘Who’s that guy?’
‘Some kid. College kid.’
‘And you feel perfectly OK about flirting with him while I’m over there making you a beverage?’
‘I would feel OK about that, if that’s what I was doing.’
‘There are plenty of other coffee shops in San Francisco you can go to.’
‘Why don’t you work in one of them, then?’
‘Are you kidding? This is my workplace. And you’re ruining it for me, emotionally. Would you mind leaving now? I have stuff to do.’
‘Fine,’ I say.
Halfway down the block, I run into Andrew. He’s got his skateboard under his arm and he’s talking on his phone.
‘Wait one second,’ he says to the person he’s speaking to. He holds his phone face down on his chest and asks me, ‘So when are we gonna go on a date?’
‘We’re not,’ I tell him. ‘You’re my housemate.’
‘Does that mean Sophie’s off-limits, too?’
When I get to Amnesia, Lars is sitting on the edge of the stage, bent over with his face in his hands. ‘Dude,’ I say, sitting next to him. ‘What a shitty week.’ It’s only then that I notice his ear is all scraped up and bloody. When he looks at me, I see he has a black eye and a big gash at his hairline. There’s a hole in his T-shirt the size of a pancake.
‘Bike accident,’ he says.
‘Whoa,’ I say.
‘Beer,’ he says.
The bartender is a tall redhead guy with a face that’s more sideburns than skin, and a moustache that would make Dalí swoon. He nods when I order, and pulls me a pint.
‘Seven bucks,’ he says, placing it in front of me.
‘I’m in the band,’ I say.
‘I know. Seven bucks.’
‘Don’t we get drink tickets?’
‘Last time you were in here,you made out with my girlfriend. That’ll be seven bucks.’
‘Fine.’ I get out the money and put it on the bar. ‘I’m not tipping though.’ He shrugs and takes the bills. I pick up the drink and say,‘Why are you being so weird about it? It’s girl on girl.Aren’t guys supposed to be into that?’
‘This isn’t fucking Los Angeles,’ he says.
I go back to the stage and give the glass to Lars, who takes a couple of sips and then chugs the rest down. He leans his head on my shoulder. ‘I was turning left, man, and this guy in a taxi slammed straight into me.’
‘Did he have right of way?’
‘Did you have lights on?’
‘I think I may have chipped a molar.’
‘Man.’ He sits up and glares at me. ‘You’re always one-upping me.’
The bar is almost empty, but an hour after we’ve sound checked, there are about twenty people there; at least four of them have come to see us. Lars has graduated to a bottle of Knob Creek I bought at the corner store across the street. He takes a slug as we climb on to the stage, then passes it to me. I take it with my non-tambourine hand and hold it up at the bartender in a gesture of cheers. He sticks up his middle finger.
‘Hey, thanks for coming out tonight. We’re Betty Cooper’s Revenge,’ says Lars, who has, I now realize, developed a bit of a lisp from the accident. ‘I fell off my bicycle today and Claire is pregnant. Now you’ve all caught up, let’s play some tunes.’
He starts in with the opening chords of ‘Mood Ring’.
‘If any of you record this and put it online,’ I say into my microphone,‘I will track you down and – add you to our email list.’Then I put the bottle to my lips and drink.
‘Mmm, baby loves bourbon,’ Lars says, smirking at me.
‘He’s a lousy lay, ladies,’ I say. ‘Believe me, I tried him out. And that was before the concussion. One. Two. A one, two–’ I hit the tambourine hard against my palm and shake it.
‘Honey baby, you’re a tall drink of water,’ Lars sings.‘I’m kind of regretting that restraining order.’ His falsetto is so pretty. I close my eyes. ‘Please take it slow, don’t get carried away. Let’s drive through the desert and get married today.’
After the set, we stand at the end of the bar, finishing the bottle, until the guy from Coed Dorm comes and screams at us to get our shit off the stage so they can play. I’m sloppy on my feet now and I drop my triangle wand as I’m shoving the percussion gear into my bag. I think about bending down to look for it in the half-dark, but I need to use the bathroom, so I decide I’ll just play it with my house key from now on.
When I get to the ladies’ room, there’s a line outside.
‘Hey,’ says the girl in front of me. She’s wearing dangly earrings. ‘Great show.’
‘Hey, thanks,’ I say. She smiles at me and I wonder if I should make out with her.
‘You’re pregnant,right?’ says the girl in front of her. ‘You can go ahead of me.’
‘Oh, cheers.’ I move to the front of the line and try the bathroom door. It’s locked. The girl who gave me her spot is wearing little black shorts and tall brown boots. I wonder if I should make out with her.
‘Do you date anyone who works here?’ I ask her. She looks confused.
‘The men’s room is free,’ says a guy coming out of the men’s room.‘You can use it.’
The bathroom, like every public bathroom in this town, is disgusting. The floors are wet, the door handle is sticky, the graffiti isn’t funny and there’s no toilet seat. I half sit, half stand, pull my dress up, clutch it in a bunch, and hope for the best.
When I come out, the same guy is still standing there. He has blond floppy hair and wide-set blue eyes and he’s probably attractive but he’s not my type.Tan pants, lace-up Vans, a short-sleeved pale blue button-down shirt, and a big fat silver ring on his thumb.
‘I think your friend should go to the emergency room,’ he says.
‘Who?’ I look around until I see Lars sitting at the bar with a girl who waits tables at Suppenküche. She’s holding a handful of ice to his forehead and it’s dribbling down his face as it melts. He’s trying to catch the droplets with his tongue.‘Look at those reflexes,’ I say.‘He’s fine.’
‘Are you really pregnant?’ the guy asks.
‘Yep,’ I say, ‘for a limited time only.’
He holds his hand out and introduces himself as Anton. He asks what I’m doing in the States, and I say I’m doing a PhD in cinema studies,and we get into a conversation about Wes Anderson and Paul Thomas Anderson, and the difference between childish cinema and the cinema of childhood. Then my stomach rumbles and it takes me a minute to work out that it’s not alcohol or attraction or my unwanted pregnancy that’s doing it. I just haven’t eaten since breakfast.
‘Hey, where do you live?’ I ask.
‘Just on 17th. Whoa, are you OK?’
I reach out and grab hold of the wall beside me.‘Do you have any food there?’
His bike is an eight-speed with brakes and a brand name, and tyres that wouldn’t look out of place on an army jeep. He rolls it between us as we walk. When we get to his building, he says it’s too heavy to carry up the stairs, and he takes his time locking it up in the downstairs hallway.
‘You’ve got nothing to worry about,’ I say. ‘You could leave that thing lying out on the pavement all night and no one would take it.’
He looks down at his bike and gives a small, sad shrug. ‘I’d take it,’ he says.
The apartment is standard San Francisco Victorian: a long narrow hallway with bedrooms and a bathroom coming off it, and a living room and a kitchen in the very back.Anton’s probably about twenty-four and I’m expecting ramen noodles or leftover Chinese takeaway, but what he brings out is a plate with five different cheeses on it, a bowl of hummus (‘homemade,’ he says) and crackers imported from Sweden. He sits opposite me and watches while I eat.
I’m halfway through the next story and have eaten most of the hummus when one of Anton’s housemates comes home.‘What’s up?’ he says.
‘We’re having a surprise party for Calorie at the playground in Dolores Park.Wanna join?’
‘You have a friend called Calorie?’ I ask.
‘I’ve seen you before,’ he says. ‘At the Common Room. You go out with that tall dirty guy.’
‘Not any more,’ I say.
‘Huh.’ He looks down at the table and smiles.This is when I should probably say something – ‘I’m not looking for anything’, or ‘I don’t want to date right now’, or ‘We should just be friends’. Or maybe it’s some non-verbal cue I’m supposed to give: lean away, seem bored and uninterested, don’t make eye contact while smiling. But those things don’t come naturally to me. So I do what I always do when I meet a new guy: I tell him about all my troubles with the other guys.
‘He went away to Honduras to visit a coffee farm, right, and he sent me a text message saying he was spending the last two days on Roatan.We’re writing back and forth, and it’s all really fun, so I say, “I’m glad you’re having a break.You need a holiday. Go get laid and be safe.” And then he sends me this barrage of vitriolic –’
‘He’s still in love with you,’Anton says.‘He doesn’t want to hear some buddyish suggestion like that.You’re the only one he wants to sleep with.’
I guess.’ I cut off a piece of Brie and pull it from the knife with my fingers. ‘But then there’s my thesis supervisor, who’s so smart and I could talk to him for ever, but when we kissed, there was nothing there. I couldn’t believe it. On paper, we’re so right for each other. So I kissed him a few other times just to make sure.’
‘And nothing. Even his smell. You know how they say if you’re attracted to someone’s scent, it means they have a different immune system to yours? So then your babies would have really strong immune systems. With my supervisor, I’m not attracted to his scent at all. I can barely smell anything, and when I can, I don’t find it sexy. I think it’s because we’re both descendants of Eastern European Jews. We’re from the same tribe.’
‘You both have the old Ashkenazi immune system?’ he says.
‘Exactly. So then there’s this guy back home –’ I tell him the story of my sister and my ex-boyfriend, and I expect him to be appalled and horrified, but all he says is, ‘Do you still have feelings for this guy?’
‘No. But what’s that got to do with it?’
‘Do you like him at all? Like, as a person?’
‘Al? Yeah, he’s lovely. Super sweet guy.’
‘Well, then maybe you should get out of their way.’
‘What? I can’t do that. It’s too weird. You don’t get how weird it is.’
I’m halfway through the next story and have eaten most of the hummus when one of Anton’s housemates comes home. A skinny guy with a side part and a red bandana tied around his neck. ‘What’s up?’ he says. ‘We’re having a surprise party for Calorie at the playground in Dolores Park. Wanna join?’
‘You have a friend called Calorie?’ I ask.
There are voices in the hallway, and the lights go off in the living room.The fairy lights rimming the ceiling come on, and suddenly there are about ten people in there, sitting, standing, talking. One guy has a radio strapped to his back with what looks like a seatbelt. It’s playing a Cut Copy song. ‘Who are these people?’ I ask, standing up as two girls in legwarmers rush into the kitchen with a foil-covered baking dish that holds, it is soon revealed, a birthday cake for Calorie. Whose name is spelled with an O-R-Y.
‘They’re moped people,’ says Anton. Then, ‘Wanna go up on the roof? I have wine.’
We go through an alcove full of bicycles and skateboards, out the back door and up some stairs, past the back door of the apartment above, and up another flight till we reach the bottom of a ladder. ‘Are you scared of heights?’ he asks, handing me the bottle. He turns and grabs hold of a rung. I look up the ladder, to the awning of the roof and beyond it, to a few city stars.
‘I’m not scared of heights,’ I tell him,‘I’d just rather not fall.’
The roof is big and flat,and we sit right in the middle – Twin Peaks before us, the park to our left, the skyline and bridges behind our backs. The wine is full-bodied and tastes like grapes. Luke, I know, would taste other things in it – stone fruit or Meyer lemon cake or red Jolly Ranchers – things I would never have thought of but, when he identified them, would realize were there.
‘So,’ Anton says.
‘So,’ I say.
‘So why do you think these guys are into you?’ He takes a swig and passes the bottle.
‘It’s probably just the accent.’
‘It can’t just be that,’ he says. ‘Maybe it’s the Winona Ryder thing.You look a bit like her.’
‘Wow, I do? Like, which one? Heathers Winona or Little Women Winona?’
‘Um, I think Beetlejuice Winona.’
‘What? That’s not a good thing. No one’s trying to date Beetlejuice Winona. Except Beetlejuice.’
‘Oh,’ he says. ‘Then I don’t know what it is. You don’t even have big tits.’
‘Small mercies,’ I say. ‘What’s that noise?’
We go to the edge of the roof and look over, and he’s right. A crowd of people on mopeds are revving on the footpath. They’re all wearing helmets and jeans and it’s difficult to tell who’s who. I make out a pair of purple legwarmers on one person.A red bandana on another.Then they all follow each other in a U-turn and ride up the street in a mess of effete urbanism.They turn left on to Dolores Street and head for the park.
‘So this abortion thing is a big deal,’Anton says,once they’ve disappeared.
‘Nah. This abortion is the most practical and organized thing in my life. It’s the only thing I’m certain I want.’
‘Still, it’s like an operation. Operations suck.’
‘Yeah,’ I say.‘I guess they do.’
We sit back down. The roar of the moped motors turns into a high-pitched buzz as they get further away. Then it gets quiet. I think about my cigarettes. I left them downstairs in my bag. I lie back, ignoring the gravel digging into me, and picture myself at the clinic on Monday, lying on an operating table, with blood coming out of my – where? With medical instruments lying about that look like – what? I realize I don’t know anything about the procedure I’m going to have, and that seems scarier than knowing every tiny detail about it.
‘Let’s stop talking about me,’ I say to Anton, feeling suddenly short of breath. ‘Let’s talk about you. Let’s talk about everything there is to know about you. Like, what do you do?’
‘I’m a graphic designer,’he says.‘And I paint.’
‘Sounds great,’ I say. The tightness in my chest gets worse. ‘Do you have a girlfriend?’
‘No. I just broke up with a woman about four months ago.’
‘Cool,’ I say. ‘Can I sleep over?’
‘Uh’ – He smiles an embarrassed smile and looks up at the radio tower on the hill.‘I don’t think that’s a good idea.’
‘Please,’ I say. ‘We don’t have to do anything. We can just sleep.’
‘I just met you,’ he says. ‘I don’t know you.’
‘I’m nice,’ I say, grabbing his hand and squeezing.
‘You’re smashed,’ he says. ‘It wouldn’t feel right. Why don’t I just walk you home?’
When I wake early the next morning, it’s still dark outside my window, and I feel like something has gone horribly wrong. I sit up, and rack my brain for a minute before I remember: I’m pregnant.
‘What’s going on?’ someone says.
Luke is lying beside me, one hand under his head, the other one lying flat on his bare chest.
‘How did you get here?’
‘I rode my bike,’ he says.
‘Who let you in?’
‘You did. You drunk-dialled and told me to come over. I asked if we were gonna talk about the baby and you said yes. But when I got here, you kept telling me to shut up. You had other ideas.’
‘Shut up,’ I say. I find my phone on the floor by the bed and scroll down to the outgoing calls section. And there it is: (Don’t call) Luke 1.38a.m.
‘That’s my name in your phone?’ he asks.
‘It’s a joke,’ I say, lying back down. He props himself up on his elbow and looks at me. His face is just a few centimetres from mine.
‘Anyway,’ he says, ‘I was happy you called.’
‘How do you do that?’ I ask him. ‘How do you smell like coffee first thing in the morning?’
I find my phone on the floor by the bed and scroll down to the outgoing calls section. And there it is: (Don’t call) Luke 1.38 a.m.
‘That’s my name in your phone?’ he asks.
‘I didn’t shower yesterday,’ he says. Then I lift my face and kiss him because, for some reason, right now I can’t think of a single sentence that is sexier than that one.
I fall asleep and when I wake again, the sun is rising over Potrero Hill. I slip out of bed, go to my desk, open my laptop, and stare at the last words I wrote, over a week ago: The enduring namelessness of the protagonists of Hiroshima Mon Amour underscores the fragmentation and anonymity which, Resnais holds, are universally characteristic of the post-war experience. I read it over three times. Then I think, God, I’m a wanker.
I look around for my cigarettes. I find an unopened pack in my bag, along with my percussion instruments and a pile of pamphlets that Dr Hill gave me.The one on top has a picture on it of a girl who looks both solemn and confident. Above her head it reads, Abortion: what you need to know.
By the time Luke wakes up at eight-thirty, I’ve read through all of them, and am showered and dressed. ‘Shit,’ he says, climbing out of the bed. ‘I have a staff cupping at nine.’
I stare at his crotch as he pulls his jeans up his legs, and I say, ‘This was an isolated incident.’
‘Uh-huh,’ he says. ‘Sure.’
Mission Street is almost deserted.There’s a prostitute talking on her phone on the corner of 21st Street, and a couple of dealers standing outside the Beauty Bar. None of them pay any attention to the two of us: Luke on the seat of his fixed-gear, pedalling, and me on the handlebars, giving directions.
‘Keep going,’ I tell him. ‘OK, move a little to the left. Now there’s a stop sign coming up in about half a block.’ Either it’s too early for this, or I’m still drunk from last night, or maybe it’s the first signs of morning sickness, but I feel every pothole and every piece of rubbish we ride over like it’s a punch to the abdomen. I almost scream when he runs a red light at 19th Street. When he turns left on to 17th we narrowly avoid a collision with a girl riding a beach cruiser in the other direction.
‘You don’t look so hot,’ he says, when I hop off the bike outside Anton’s place.
‘Yeah,’ I say. ‘That was rough.You have to change your gear ratio or something.’
‘Who lives here?’ he asks, looking up at the building.
‘Uh, this girl Calory,’ I say.‘You don’t know her. Thanks for the lift.
When I ring the doorbell, Anton’s housemate opens it, wearing just his boxer shorts. He rubs his eye with the palm of his hand, walks down the hallway, bangs on a closed door, and then goes into the next room.When Anton comes out, he’s wearing just his boxers as well. He’s not as skinny as Luke and he has less chest hair and no tattoos, but what strikes me is how similar all these guys look when they’re half undressed.
‘Hi,’ I say. ‘My name’s Claire. I don’t know if you remember me but we met last night at the bar.’
‘You do look familiar,’ he says. ‘Betty’s Revenge, right?’
‘Yep, founding member.’
He doesn’t ask me in so I cross my arms and lean against the door frame. ‘So I was reading up about this abortion stuff. And there’s this website run by a really nice woman in Georgia called Loretta who’ll pay for a girl like me to have an ultrasound of my baby. Just to help me make the decision.’
‘That’s sweet of her,’ he says in a croaky voice. He has sleep goop caught in the corners of both eyes.
‘So I was wondering if you’re interested in a road trip?’
He stares at me and yawns at the same time. ‘Are you serious?’
‘No. Actually, I need someone to pick me up from the clinic tomorrow. I’m not allowed to leave by myself. I guess I was wondering –’
He looks like he doesn’t want to do it. But then he says he’ll do it.
‘Thank you,’ I say. ‘You’re the only person I know who wouldn’t judge me, or try to sleep with me, or tell me to keep the baby.’
‘Jesus,’ he says. ‘I can’t wait to meet your friends.’
And I can’t help it: the future reference makes me happy.
‘Do you want to go get a coffee or something?’ I ask him.
‘No,’ he says. ‘I’m gonna go back to bed.’
It’s a Sunday morning and Valencia Street is quiet.There are a few couples walking together, with rolled up newspapers under their arms or with babies in prams, but the road is empty and the pavements are mostly vacant. I realize I can walk slower and look around a lot more, when I’m not expecting to bump into someone I know. I walk the two blocks to Amnesia, and the next four to the Common Room. Then I cross the street, cut over to Shotwell and let myself into my apartment.
I go to my room, take out my phonecard and call the number on the back. I punch in my PIN and dial the number of my sister’s flat in London. It rings and I wait for her to pick up. It is late in the day where she is. I am excited to speak to her. I am excited to tell her that I’m happy she has found love.