The Sacred and the Symptom
Abortion and the politics of human thriving.
The announcement on the intercom began again. Our train was delayed another twenty minutes, and I looked at my husband to see how he met the news. He was too busy to care, though. He was shaking a high-tech vending machine on the platform as a young girl and her mother looked on, hopeful.
Among the many reasons I’ll adore this man until the end of our days are moments like this, his quick, charming, and always automatic transformation from a pensive intellectual with aristocratic fashion sense into a dashing street hero. Suddenly he’s all wry wit, his smile that of a rogue crusader, and before you blink he’s carrying some old woman’s groceries, lifting heavy luggage off a train for a young woman, or wrestling with a vending machine.
We were traveling to Köln, Germany for a night. Thanks to some extra sales of my recent book, I’d had enough money to finally do what I’d always wanted to do for the man—take him on a trip somewhere interesting and pay for it all. He’d never had a man do this for him, as it’s always been he who paid and took care of all the details. Finally someone else did, and I was thrilled to do this for us. It felt well-timed, also, as I myself needed distraction from too much thinking about the world.
I watched him shake the machine again, and I asked him what was happening. He pointed to a package of candy that’d become stuck, suspended just before being dropped to where the girl could reach it. In the grand scheme of human suffering, such things might seem trivial, yet I’ve always felt a deep, indescribable sense of sadness witnessing such moments.
It’s happened to everyone, I’m sure, and most often to us when we’re children. Something behind a glass case draws our desire. We ask for coins from our parents, or search them from our own pockets, and, following the instructions, do everything we’re supposed to do on our end of the transaction. The machine then fulfills its part of the bargain, delivering on its promise—until it doesn’t.
The machine is unthinking, unfeeling. We cannot ask it why it lied, why it failed. It is stealing from us, and we cannot beg it to return what is now rightly ours. There is never anyone else really to call, even if there’s a number printed somewhere. They won’t answer, or if they do at best they’ll offer you a refund by mail. Worst of all, you look a fool and feel to be one: others around you (if there are others) shake their heads in sorrow. “That happens,” they might say, or “there is nothing to be done.” You feel you should have known better, and tell yourself never to trust anything again.
The sight of my husband shaking the machine was a beautiful sight. He’s not really the sort to shake anything, to apply what we might call brute force to a problem. He’s too deft for such responses, and too aristocratic. But he was shaking it, and it was beautiful.
The sight pulled me from my thoughts for a moment. I had been thinking about a friend I’d had some twenty years ago. We were roommates for a little while. My fondest memory of her is the morning she walked unannounced into my bedroom. I was naked in bed with another man, both of us asleep after a very long night. In my memory it was champagne in the wine glass she handed me, but maybe it was just sparkling mineral water, but either way she was holding two of them, and one was for me.
“Wake up, dear,” she said, then turned on the radio in my bedroom so I could hear the news everyone else was hearing that September morning. “It’s the apocalypse.”
She was such an elegant mess, always darkly funny, bitingly and charmingly insulting. Her insights into the world bore the marks of morbid genius and a contagious misanthropy which seemed regardless somehow kind and compassionate.
While we lived together, she got pregnant. The father was the type of man I came to know and recognize too well in radical circles, the “sensitive dreamer” type who is always working on a self-described “brilliant” project that will change the world. They never have jobs, are usually on some sort of disability scheme or another, yet nevertheless have all the computer or music equipment someone with an actual income would struggle to purchase. He’d gotten her pregnant, and then he moved in with us for a little while, setting up his music equipment in our living room.