artwork for Alicia Gifford's story

Alicia Gifford

Maddie had to lie because the truth was worse than the truth of being 16 and pregnant. The truth was worse than the secret barfing and checking her underpants for blood every hour. The truth was worse than the baggy sweatshirt she wore during gym class and the bulky coat she wore even in 90-degree weather.

She’d asked her neighbor, swooning into the melted chocolate of his eyes, his tan smoothness, she’d asked him, offhand, cool: “You’re really cut, right? Because I’m, ha-ha, late.”

“No, no,” he’d said. “I’m cut. After my kid was born. No more babies.”

“Whew,” she said. “Double whew. I was nervous, being late and all.” They laughed and then his wife drove up with their baby girl.

But her period did not come and she was getting so barfy, so she let Tommy—the boy who’d been trying to fuck her for months—after the usual struggle in the back of his van—she let him fuck her. She let him think he took her virginity. He was in the Navy and going to Vietnam soon. She thought it was a good idea.

Tangled webs, right out of Shakespeare.

* * *

She was not, not going to lose her virginity in the back of Tommy’s freezing van with its lumpy mattress and Hawaiian-print curtains on the windows. She had standards. She’d made a promise to herself that if and when she were to lose her virginity, it would be in a proper bed with someone she loved. It would be special. It would be real.

Her neighbor, Mr. Hunter—Alex—was the dreamiest man she’d ever seen. Movie star handsome. He was a lot older, like, 30, and married. A carpenter who surfed. Sometimes he’d mow his lawn with his shirt off and she thought she could die for him. One night when his wife and baby girl were visiting in Reno, he asked Maddie to come over and keep him company. He served Red Mountain wine mixed with 7-Up until the room whirled. He told her she was beautiful, desirable; that he watched her a lot, that he thought she was groovy. He smelled like patchouli and wine and cigarettes. His beard scratched her skin until it burned. She loved him. When she said she feared getting pregnant he said that he’d been cut; that she’d be safe with him. His sweat dripped on her face as he pounded into her. It wasn’t what she thought it would be.

* * *

The next time Tommy got shore leave, she told him that she’d missed her period and that she was pretty sure she was pregnant and that he was the father and that she needed 20 bucks to go to a doctor for a test. “That’s a big chunk out of a sailor’s pay,” he said, handing over the money. She would think of this sentence for a very long time. Years.

The shit came down at seven months when the coat and sweatshirt could no longer hide the swollen mess of her body. All the questions. Tommy was long gone to Vietnam and she pinned it all on him. He was 19, single. He was gone. It was a better story. Because how could she tell her mother and father that she’d fucked the married old dude up the street? How could she say she fucked Mr. Hunter and that he’d told her he was cut? Her dad had a gun. Her mom strangled a cat once.

She wondered if Mr. Hunter—Alex—had noticed her growing belly. He kept awfully low lately. He didn’t drive down the block anymore with his surfboard strapped to the top of his Chevy. He didn’t work in his yard. Anyway, as far as she was concerned, Tommy was the father. Her boyfriend in Vietnam.

Her mom yanked her hair and called her a slut with no self-control. Her dad drank. Her mom insisted on the home for unwed mothers because there was no greater shame than a girl in trouble, except for being the mother of a girl in trouble. Maddie’s mom made up a story about a ruptured appendix to tell the school and shipped her daughter to a home run by nuns.

Maddie found out that her mom had contacted Tommy’s mom and extracted money from her to help pay for the home. Maddie had told her mother to leave Tommy and his family out of it. “He’s in Nam for christssake,” she’d shrieked. But her mom contacted Tommy’s mom anyway, and then Tommy’s mom wrote Maddie a long letter full of mom-angst, and Maddie felt guilty for no more than half a second because Tommy could’ve been the father. If it weren’t for the fact that he wasn’t.

The baby, a girl, was stillborn. Stillborn in the sad maternity hospital in the sad home for unwed mothers. They whisked the little body away and it was like it never happened. Except for the milk dripping from her tits after she was home. The loose flop of flesh that was her belly. She studied Elizabeth Montgomery on Bewitched to see if her postpartum belly had returned to its previous state. She wrote long, sad letters to Tommy and his mother, telling them the news, adding that maybe it was for the best. Tommy wrote back about gooks and smoking weed and a new band he was in on his ship.

There were a lot of rumors about her, back at school. Girls coming up to her saying, “You can tell me. I won’t say a word.” For her family, it was The Mortification That Must Never Be Spoken. The baby skeleton in the closet. Her mom kept track of Maddie’s periods on the kitchen calendar, a big, red P.

Tommy came back from Nam and they dated a while, secretly, behind her parents’ backs. They fucked some more, carefully, until one day he made out with her girlfriend right in front of her, and she’d bent his little finger back until it snapped. She’d grabbed her girlfriend’s car keys and taken off, leaving the fuckers there to do whatever. Mr. Hunter—Alex—moved away. She heard he had another kid and got a divorce. Eventually, she stopped daydreaming of tying him up, cutting off his dick, ramming it down his throat, and watching him choke-bleed to death. Eventually, she stopped fantasizing about what she’d say to him. “Cut? I’ll show you cut.”

* * *

Years later, so many, many years later, having a baby out of wedlock had lost its stigma. It even became cool. Abortion was legal. A Plan B pill. The home for unwed mothers became an adoption agency.

She never told her gynecologists about the baby. When Maddie and her husband wanted to start a family, she had a surgical procedure to remove her IUD, as it had embedded in her uterus. After, the doctor had given her the stink-eye. “Your uterus was quite large for someone who’s never had a baby.” She never went back to him. Eventually, she and her husband divorced and her uterus filled up with fibroids. She got three cats and spayed them all.

She wondered about Tommy, how she’d feel to see him after all these years, so she looked him up. They met in a bar and drank 12-dollar margaritas as they caught up. They were in their 40s by then, and cigarettes and the sun had taken a toll on him.

She considered telling him the truth about everything, how she’d used him and why. She wondered if he’d understand, if he’d forgive her. She wondered if he’d tell his mother.

“You were a wild one,” he said.

“Yeah, until the baby,” she said.

“What baby?”

“Our baby. The dead baby.”

“What dead baby?”

He didn’t remember. He’d left a pregnant girl to go to Vietnam and came back to an unpregnant girl with a dead baby, and it had slipped his mind.

She noticed his little finger was crooked. She started to giggle. The whole thing was pretty funny, really. Fucking hilarious. Except she felt a sob welling up, too, and she wasn’t going to be one of those laughing-and-crying hysterical chicks, at least not until she got to her car. She ordered another margarita that she had no intention of drinking and swaggered away, leaving him with the check.

Alicia Gifford’s Comments

I watched a rerun of Susan Slade (1961, Connie Stevens and Troy Donahue), and, man, it was corny, but it made me think of those days before the Pill and legal abortion, when being an unwed mother was the most shameful stigma a girl could endure. Girls “in trouble” were often sent away, whether to homes for unwed mothers or off to a distant relative’s house. The babies were most often put up for closed adoption, often without the mother being able to see her baby, much less hold it. We’ve come a long way in our attitudes and freedoms, but still there are those who want to judge and punish girls and women. There are still those who want to keep girls and women cowed, shame-filled, and in their place.

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FRiGG: A Magazine of Fiction and Poetry | Issue 48 | Fall/Winter 2016 | The Shame Issue