When I was thirteen, my grandmother gave me a small, gold locket. It was a gift she’d promised for my Confirmation—a sacrament I only performed for her sake, anyway. I’d already lost faith—or at least, interest—in the Catholic Church, but tradition offered a bribe and I took it. Religion was a family heirloom my Italian-American mother never wore. She wanted me to have it, anyway.
Grandma knew I wouldn’t wear a crucifix necklace like the one she’d given my sister the previous year, like the ones the other semi-Catholic Italian-American preteens at my Long Island middle school wore. But I had always wanted a locket. The idea seemed so romantic—to hang a tiny heart around your neck, a picture of some treasured thing inside. Only thing was, I didn’t have any things I treasured enough yet. So I left the locket empty.
Throughout high school I wore it frequently, let it dangle over my biggest-in-the-class breasts, gold and gleaming. When teenage boys and male teachers alike asked what was inside, we all knew what they wanted a closer look at. I offered up the vacancy.
Senior year, when I met the first boy I thought I’d love forever, I meant to put his picture inside—or maybe a picture of his cat—but I never got around to it. I left for college, I left him, I left the locket empty.
The forced sacraments of my youth behind me, I started making room for my own rites of passage: I got drunk, I got my heart broken, I got pregnant.
When the test showed up positive, I booked my appointment right away. I didn’t hesitate, I didn’t waver. Not when the nurse at Planned Parenthood handed me a folder full of other options, or when I broke the news to the quiet chemistry major I’d just started seeing, or when I called my best friend back home. I was too young, too smart, to think twice.
I had to go back to New York, on a Greyhound bus from Boston, but I could get it done, and quickly, and covered by my mom’s insurance, without her knowledge or permission. I brought my new nearly-boyfriend and I brought a friend, made a day of it, went for ramen after. I wore a comfortable maxi dress, a faded pair of cotton underwear, and, for reasons I couldn’t explain, a small, empty locket, unearthed from a box of old things.
Okay, so, maybe I wavered a little.
On the ride to the appointment I clutched the necklace tightly, nervously flipping it open and closed with my fingernail. Click. Empty. Click. Still empty. Click. Brimming with self-imposed symbolism, sudden sentimentality, hanging from my neck like a tiny heart-shaped albatross. My mother, my mother’s mother, and the virgin mother bickered in the back of my head as the bus barreled down the highway. Why, I wondered, did I even give a shit?
So-called Catholic guilt compounded social stigma. I let a god I didn’t believe in smite me with some phony sense of shame. I knew mine wasn’t an exceptional circumstance, that I didn’t have what most people would call a good reason for ending my pregnancy. I was just a twenty-year-old girl who’d had sex, like I’d had sex plenty of times before. We’d even used a condom; though there had been countless times in the past when I hadn’t, and I thought maybe this was retribution for that.
As far as I knew, I didn’t know anyone who’d ever had an abortion. Plenty of friends—progressive, middle-class friends in the sex ed club at my liberal arts school—said of course they supported a woman’s right to choose, but they didn’t know if they personally would do it. I hated them for saying that.
I wasn’t scared, exactly, but I was nervous about the procedure, nervous that people would look at me differently, nervous that something would go wrong with my insurance and I’d have to pay hundreds of dollars, or worse, that they’d have to call my mother.
When we arrived, the nurse asked if I’d like one of my friends in the room with me. I said no, and as soon as she stepped out I regretted it. Alone, I took off my dress and slipped into a hospital gown, climbed onto the table, hoisted my feet into the stirrups. I was awkwardly shifting my ass down the table when a doctor with a gentle voice came in to empty my uterus.
Somehow, the suction didn’t take on the first try, and the gentle voice told me she’d have to do it again. I nodded, annoyed at my body’s refusal to cooperate, and held tightly to the trinket around my neck.
It worked the second time. When I put back on the maxi dress and left, my womb was as vacant as my locket, and my underwear was ruined.
I want to say that I felt fine after the cramps passed. The truth is I spent months in mourning—not for the fetus, which never felt real, but for my former, fuller self.
I wanted to be stronger than a world that called my choice a sin and asked me to repent for it. But I wasn’t. I was all lack and longing, desperate to be filled with anything. Shame and self-pity fit the space perfectly. So I let them in.
After graduation, I packed away the locket with the rest of my college apartment and moved back into my parents’ house. A few weeks into the summer, I found myself weeping in the office of a new OB/GYN, because of the look she gave me—a sad-eyed stare of sympathy—after she asked if I’d ever been pregnant. Since the answer had become “yes,” every doctor’s visit felt like a confession.
It’s okay to forgive yourself, she said, touching my shoulder as I nodded and averted my eyes. You’re allowed to forgive yourself. As she came in close to comfort me, I noticed the tiny, silver cross around her neck.
Sara Iacovelli is a writer, teacher, and bartender who lives in Alaska though she hails from NYC. She is the director of the VIDA Count, and the former fiction editor of (the recently shuttered) Noble / Gas Qtrly. Her work has appeared in Sidereal Magazine, Euonia Review, Literally Darling, and Monkeybicycle.