My new coworker Mike sits in the cube in front of me. Mike is 21 years old, and he’s been our marketing manager for a week now. He wears button-up shirts but rolls his sleeves up; in an effort to keep his hands busy, he constantly pushes the rolls higher on his forearms when he talks. He is just tall enough to peek over our shared cubicle wall. He often rests his elbows uncomfortably on the top of it and lets his forearms fall awkwardly into my space. His blonde scruffy beard, which he grows so people think he is older, is barely visible behind the top of the partition.
My cubicle is decorated with trinkets and pictures to make the space my own. Cards and notes from friends are mounted on the carpet walls with shiny silver pins. The pages curl away from the wall like dried up butterflies pinned to a display board. When coworkers walk by, they comment on my many wedding photos and how happy my husband and I appear in them.
When I go in Mike’s cubicle to brainstorm ideas for an upcoming event, I notice his carpeted wall is no longer blank. A black-and-white ultrasound picture hangs above his MacBook. As we talk, my eyes stay focused on the picture, looking away only to glance at his bare ring finger.
I hear whispered rumors waft over the cubicle walls as I walk through the office. Mike got his girlfriend pregnant. He found that out after they had broken up. She was going to keep the baby.
Mike always wears a smile at work, as if everything in his life is fine.
We grab a drink together after work one night. Sitting at the bar with a half-finished beer in my hand, I turn to Mike with a side smile. “Can I ask you a question?” I say.
“Ask me anything,” he replies.
“So the whole kid thing — did you just miss that day in health class or what happened there?”
Mike tells his story in hushed tones. Perhaps it isn’t proper bar talk. Perhaps he would be embarrassed if someone heard. He didn’t mind telling me, but he probably didn’t want the whole bar to know. There are only a few people we are willing to share ourselves with.
The Christian Reformed families of West Michigan preach waiting until marriage. I’ve heard that, in abstinence-only education, it’s taught that condoms don’t even work. So Mike didn’t carry condoms and neither did his girlfriend. And when the situation turned sexual, they were both caught unprepared, but both were unprepared to stop.
He and his girlfriend lucked out the first couple of times, says Mike. Now he leans over the table like he’s telling a secret. “Every time we did it, we said that was the last time,” he says, the same thing I tell myself about getting lunch at Taco Bell. Yet I always go back for more.
We all lose control.
I thought back to when I was 21, just finishing up college. I had met my husband Chris, but he was far from being my husband. When I was 21, we had only started dating for the first time, not yet broken up for the first time. We met on our college campus during dinner with a mutual friend. After a few more dinners, I invited him to my apartment. He stayed the whole night in my bed next to me, he in his boxers, and me in my underwear set.
Two weeks after I invited Chris to my apartment, he was staying the night without his boxers and I without my underwear set. And then it was only two months after that I was sleeping alone again.
College ended, and with it, my health insurance. It was no problem my birth control ran out. I hadn’t needed it for a while. I moved to Italy for six weeks. When I came back, my room had been rented to someone else. Chris’s roommate, who had become my friend in our short-lived relationship, invited me to stay with her for a week while I figured out what to do next. Chris would be out of town for most of it. I could have his room.
While living in their tiny apartment, sleeping alone in a bed I used to share, I looked for a new apartment. But Chris came back before I was gone. So we got drunk to ease the awkwardness. And we both stayed in his room that night.
I quickly sobered up when he returned from the bathroom and threw up three words: “The condom broke.”
In George W. Bush’s administration, a prescription was needed for the morning-after pill, and you had to take it within 72 hours of having sex. It was Friday night and Planned Parenthood, a facility that I had heard of but never had visited, was closed until Monday. The name had negative connotations in our conservative city. The words “abortion clinic” rang in my head. Is that what it would turn into for me? Is that what I would have to use their services for?
The entire weekend, I felt like I was trying to swallow vinegar. I could feel my consistent frown working its way closer and closer to my chin, the tears constantly burning the corners of my eyes, the nausea from humiliation and regret working its way into my tightened throat.
That Monday, I went to Planned Parenthood on my lunch break. They asked me lots of questions about my sexual history. How many people had I slept with? How many people was I currently sleeping with? How often did I have unprotected sex? The nurse asked these questions stoically; she was detached, perhaps even a little annoyed or accusatory. I’m sure she lumped me into a stereotype of girls who couldn’t keep their legs shut. To her, I was a fool. I felt like a fool.
Eventually, she pulled out a foil-wrapped package, pushed two pills through the silver backing, and slid a small plastic cup of water in my direction. I choked them down through the vinegar that was still lingered in my throat.
Back in the bar, I had essentially called Mike a fool, asking how he could have let this happen. Now I realize what a hypocrite I am. He didn’t appear offended; he went on to tell his story calmly and purposely. He didn’t seem as ashamed of his situation as I had been about mine. I carried my shame with me every day for ten years, never sharing it with anyone. I violated Mike’s privacy, and then gripped tightly to my own.
Why did I feel regretful when he seemed to be guiltless? Had the stigma about pregnancy out of wedlock changed in those ten years; was it now nothing to be ashamed of? Or was it because I was the woman, expected to be virginal, where he was the man, expected to sow his oats? Was it because I had rejected the possibility of a child, and Mike was embracing the possibility of a child?
We sit across from each other, alike in so many ways, our stories not that different. We strive to connect, to cement our friendship. I could reach out and share my story. But I stay quiet, sipping my beer.
The next day, as I enter the office and wish Mike good morning, we smile at each other knowingly. I catch a glimpse of his ultrasound picture as I pop my head in his cubical doorway. I wander into my own space and gaze at the picture of Chris and I in our wedding garb, the epitome of blossoming love, and I wonder for a moment how that photo might look if life had gone a different way. I leave that curiosity unanswered, buried inside my chest, and I hide behind my cubicle walls the rest of the day.