Whenever I tell the story about my marriage at sixteen, I always feel the need to say, “…and I wasn’t even pregnant!” It seems as crazy to me to have gotten married at sixteen when I wasn’t pregnant as it does to everyone who hears the story. I get a lot of wide-eyed looks of disbelief. I always try to stave off that familiar sense of embarrassment by being flippant. “Yep…crazy, huh?” I feel like people are thinking, “what, were you stupid?”
And within two months of our walk down the aisle, I did become pregnant. I’m not sure I even understood how to prevent it. At that time, my husband and I had rented a beautiful apartment with hardwood floors and two large bedrooms. Our only piece of furniture was a king-sized bed, purchased through the newspaper by my mother-in-law. Maybe that’s how it happened.
My husband worked during the day (for a very short time) selling cookware door-to-door. The training program suggested taking off his wedding ring and flirting with housewives who were stuck home all day with nothing else to do. So, while he was out “soliciting,” I sat on the king-sized bed during the day and played with my Barbie dolls. Barbie and Ken became the couple I wished we could be, and they lived out the fantasies I had of married life.
One night I awoke with a sharp pain, deep and low. I went to the bathroom and found blood in the toilet and then on the bed. I tried to wake my husband but he would not wake up so I went across the complex to my sister-in-law’s apartment and woke her. She drove me to my in-law’s house a few blocks away. Soon I was writhing on the floor of their bathroom while straining to hear their whispers and phone calls through the closed door. My mother-in-law came to check on me, and told me she and my sister-in-law were going to the apartment to try to wake up my husband, and more importantly, clean the bed she had just bought. I was left alone on that bathroom floor, pain searing though me like a knife, the cold floor against my face the only comfort. I was so frightened I wanted to scream. A couple of hours later, a trip to the toilet produced a tiny little baby. Then pain got even worse. I was out of my head with it and heard myself moaning as if from somewhere else, in some other place. Eventually, they came trooping back into the house and then more whispered phone calls. Finally I was whisked up and taken to a doctor’s office, where he removed the placenta while I grabbed his wrists in agony. This was all to save money on a hospital bill.
My husband’s job was just as short-lived as any of the others he had gotten. When we couldn’t pay the rent on our apartment, we moved into a “court” in a less than desirable area. There were roughly ten bachelor-type apartments in a horseshoe-shaped complex with a laundry room at the corner, complete with a ringer washer and a clothesline. Truth be told, the tenants and landlord were very nice and it was great to have the company of other women during the day. By this time I was pregnant again, and I had extreme morning sickness that lasted all day long. Most of the time I laid in bed and came out into the hot sun once or twice during the day to sit in webbed lawn chairs on patchy grass and catch up on the latest gossip about the other tenants. The women all wanted to give me advice and I tried to listen, but soon I was back inside with the drapes pulled shut, lying on the bed and trying to keep Saltine crackers down. I was six months along and had not yet seen a doctor.
One day my husband handed me five-dollar bill and said he’d be back in a little while. I knew this routine well enough to know not to spend it all in one place. I saved and stretched those five dollars as far as I could. In the mornings I would walk over to the landlord’s office knowing that if I hung around for a while he would inevitably offer me a donut. Then I went back to the one room apartment and slept in between vomiting or dry heaving in the bathroom. At around 5:00 p.m. I got up and walked the mile down to the local McDonalds and bought a hamburger and milk. Total cost for this nutritious meal was less than fifty cents a day.
Eventually the money ran out and I moved back in with my mother. This was not the best choice. She was drinking heavily and once, when she found out I poured her vodka down the sink, she pulled me over backwards by my hair. My husband came by for a visit one day, and I felt giddy with relief. When he got up to leave, I found myself running after him and kneeling in the street next to his car, seven months pregnant, crying and begging him not to leave me there. He drove away without a backward glance in the rearview mirror. Shock left me breathless and fear-filled thoughts came too close together. My mind felt like a jumbled mess. I wondered what would happen if I just walked away from my mother’s apartment building and just kept walking. I pictured myself walking for miles and miles until someone eventually noticed and did something to help me. But there was nowhere to go, no one to run to and no one watching. I had to go back in and face my mother, reeling around the apartment seemingly out of her mind. It was hard for me to believe that a man could do something like that to me…to us, but unfortunately I got used to the idea.
My in-laws eventually rescued me and took me in. I was eight-months pregnant and they helped me arrange to see an OB/GYN at a clinic in downtown Los Angeles, fifteen miles away. My baby was all “out front,” and I was huge, making it hard to walk. By this time the doctor wanted me to come in once a week, then twice a week when the baby was past due. Although this was an all day ordeal, my mother-in-law gave me enough money for bus fare only. In order to get to the clinic by 10:00 a.m. to be weighed in, I had to leave the house and waddle to the bus stop by 6:00 a.m. Then, after weighing in, I had to bide my time until 1:00 p.m., when I would see whichever doctor happened to be taking patients that day. I was starving by then, and one of the other patients took pity on me and took me to her nearby apartment for lunch a couple of times while we waited for our afternoon appointments. I wondered if I would get in trouble if my in-laws knew about this and never told them I had gotten myself something to eat. I would arrive back at the bus stop at about 6:00 p.m., so hungry I was ill, and waddle back into their home to sit down to the usual weekly meal, Kraft mac and cheese out of a box and powdered ice tea.
I “escaped” this existence when my son was four-months old. I called an old childhood friend and told him I wanted him to come pick me up and go looking for my husband. Within an hour of “cruising” Hawthorne Blvd. in Los Angeles, my husband happened by in his lowered Chevy Impala, and motioned my friend to pull over. He never dreamed his baby son and me would also be in that car. Sitting in the middle of the front seat was a topless dancer he had picked up at a bar. My friend went up to the driver’s side window and said, “Your wife and son are in the car with me, stupid!” He twisted around and looked back at me, turned white as a sheet, and drove away from us again.
Although the memories surrounding this pregnancy are not pleasant, tragic even, what came from it is one of the most loving, delightful sons a mother could want. He is kind, loving, caring, funny and successful. He never smoked a cigarette or tried drugs of any kind. He is so smart that he tested out at the upper 2% in the country at five-years-old. I wonder sometimes who raised him. I’m bragging, I know, but having him in my life made it worth it all, and I feel blessed every day that he’s mine.