Saturday, January 23, 2016

Her Old Man Lived in a Roll of Paper : A Story of Modern Art and Abortion

The doorbell at the front of the mansion didn’t work. I knocked, tightened my wool scarf around my neck, and after a short wait, I knocked again louder. I looked around. Fallen leaves lay in sodden patches on the lawn, their edges lifted up and stirred intermittently by random gusts of wind. Cars and city buses whooshed by, spinning water off their tires onto the street on the other side of the high wrought iron fence. At a 7-Eleven on a corner across the street, some young men were hanging around a pay phone. Susan opened the door. After we said hello, I followed her across the spacious entryway and behind a worn but grand staircase to a heavily varnished many-panelled oak door with an ornate brass knob and hinges.
We passed through that door into a dimly lit hallway. Several flat white painted doors with number decals pasted on them opened onto the hall.
The chrome doorknob on door #1 turned, the door opened from the inside, and a naked man who looked to be in his early thirties stood framed in the doorway. He stood there for a few moments backlit by the afternoon October light coming in through the dirty bare window behind him.
When we didn’t shriek or titter at the full frontal view of his pale body, he turned around, giving us a good look at his equally pale rear end, went back into his room and closed the door without saying anything. “That’s Bill. He’s the weirdo that owns this place,” Susan said. “He walks around like that sometimes. I think he thinks he’ll turn one of us on.”
She told me that the previous owner had chopped the aged mansion in that declining south Minneapolis neighborhood into fifteen 12 by 12 foot rooms. We reached the door labeled #5. She opened the padlock, and swung the door open. “Bill bought this place for a song.” “Where did he get the money?” “I don’t know. He doesn’t seem to do anything. Now he rents the rooms out to people like me.”
Susan was 22 at the time we met up that afternoon in Minneapolis. The June before she had graduated with a degree in Studio Arts from Moorhead State College, which is a seven-hour drive northwest of the Twin cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul.
I had been an art student in Moorhead too, before I transferred to the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis a few years before she graduated.  Susan and I had gotten to know each other because we both often worked late on our art assignments.
I’m not someone who could afford to or would want to choose my friends by their looks, but just for the record, nobody would call Susan beautiful. Nice looking, they’d say perhaps. She had youth and slenderness going for her. Her face was attractive enough, but slightly marred by light case of acne and of oily skin.  I don’t remember any of her facial features.
Come to think of it, I don’t remember any of her art either. I don’t know, but she might say similar things about me. It might be harder for her to forget my art though, the piece I was working on was a 4 feet x 6 feet photorealist painting of flat snow-dusted Minnesota farmland that stretched out along the interstate highway I 94 that ran through Fargo. 
The only trees in view from the open road were some cottonwoods that grew along the outline of the Buffalo River in the distance and some Russian olives and more cottonwoods that had been planted in straight lines around the farmsteads by the WPA in the 1930s. A blue semi-truck barreled towards the viewer in the left lane.   
The scene on my canvas was framed by the outline of distinctive front window and dashboard mirror of my beat up second hand Saab.  The left rear view mirror showed only a circle of black, exactly what the camera had seen when I took the e photograph that I’d used for the painting.
A sign on the right side of the road in the painting read “Downer Exit 1 Mile.” It was my little joke. I had taken the photo out on the highway from the back seat of the Saab on the chilly April day before my divorce was being finalized. The sign actually read, “Sabin/Downer Exit 1 Mile.” I thought my modification was clever. I was exiting the downer, get it? Nudge, nudge. If I’d only known . . ..
My painting was inspired by a two-story close-up of Close’s face, an early selfie, at the Walker Art Museum. Mine was a lot smaller than the Close painting, but it was the largest thing in the art studio. I stretched the canvas myself, one skill I had been taught at the school, but I needed to teach myself how to plan a painting, how to use an air brush, laying down and removing masking tape and putting down layers of paint, painting and reconsidering and repainting as I worked through the problems that presented themselves. The faculty at the school was strong into teaching students how to express themselves, and weak on teaching anything as prescriptive as technique.
A hip young women artist who was at the college as a visiting professor had been pleased that I was trying photorealism, and she exclaimed that the painting captured exactly what it felt like to drive through the landscape around there. If I ever finished it, she said, she would give it an A. It took me a year. The visiting professor was gone back to New York city by then, but the head of the department gave me the A and closed out my Incomplete when I told him what my professor had said. 
I would see Susan around the art studios in Moorhead during two or three evenings a week. After I made dinner and ate with my two children and cleaned up the dishes, I would leave the kids with a babysitter, drive back to the art building, and work until I couldn’t stay awake any more. Sometimes I’d also see another young student hanging around there too, a more than six feet tall boney blond guy named Sven. I never saw what he was working on. But I was semi-aware that Sven was “into” pushing the limits of conceptual art. That kind of art is usually impossible to see, anyway. In case you have been mercifully spared exposure to this enduring fad in the art world, one prominent idea behind conceptual art is no actual work of art even needs to be created. The art is in the mind of its creator. I didn’t talk with Sven much. He did was as terse as just about all of the rest of the men I met around there. I’m from the East Coast, and I found the local men to be frustratingly inarticulate. I did overhear Sven actually talking, one night in the art department. He was reading to Susan the words from Yoko Ono’s “Snow Piece (1963),” one of the instructions from Grapefruit.
Think that snow is falling. Think that snow is falling everywhere all the time. When you talk with a person, think that snow is falling between you and on the person. Stop conversing when you think the person is covered by snow.”
The phrase “snow job” popped into my mind.
After she graduated, Susan moved to the cities  to take a job as a secretary at a law office in downtown Minneapolis. I had moved there with my two children to escape the small pond of the small college and to try to find like-minded people in the big pond of the big city University of Minnesota.
The afternoon I visited Susan in the rooming house, I hadn’t seen her in a few years. It’s too big a subject to go into here in any detail, but I had changed in the meantime. I had peeled off my cynical artist intellectual atheist personna like a mask. In my miserable time alone trying to raise my kids in poverty and finish my college degree after my divorce, I stopped thinking my husband’s name like a mantra, which I had been doing since I took up with him ten years earlier, as if he could save me.  Gradually, I  had been drawn back to the Catholic faith of my childhood. I said to myself that even if religion was a crutch, there was nothing wrong with accepting help from Almighty God. That meant to my great relief that I didn’t have to figure out by all by myself any more.
Susan looked especially nice the day of my visit to her room. Her long wavy brown hair was held back with a leather clasp, and she wore jeans, suede boots, a loose navy blouse, and a necklace made of colored wooden beads.
“Seeing anyone?” I asked. “Well, sort of. I’m sleeping with a guy who lives here.” “What kind of work does he do?” “He collects welfare.” “How can he collect welfare? Isn’t he able to work?” “I don’t think he wants to work. He’s on General Assistance.” “What does he do since he doesn’t work?” “I don’t know. I guess. He has a motorcycle. He keeps it in his room. Sometimes he takes it out, and we go for a ride.” She showed me a picture of him, a big blonde bearded man wearing a tee shirt and jeans and motorcycle boots sitting on the edge of the mattress and boxspring that was on the floor of her room and grinning for the camera.
At that time, amazingly enough, a healthy young man could get on a form of welfare called General Assistance. That was a loophole that has long since been closed.
As I was listening to her talk, I was fuming inside about how a no-good freeloading bum like him could get a smart attractive creative girl like Susan when he was without any virtues of his own to offer, no education, no ambition, no job, no love, no hope of committment. I wondered what her parents would think of the way their beloved little daughter was living now she’d grown. She had been raised well. How, I wondered, could she could sell her precious self so short?
I don’t remember how we got on the subject, but she told me that she’d had an abortion.
It turns out that some time after I moved away from Moorhead, Susan and Sven had drifted into one of those noncommittal affairs that became so common in those decades . He had made no promises, and she had not expected any.
He had made up his mind that he didn’t want to ever make a commitment to one woman or to have kids. He needed to be free to pursue his Art.  Artists didn’t have to live by the rules that applied to other people. Being an Artist  wasn’t tied up with anything so mundane as needing to get up out of bed every day when it was still dark in winter mornings and scrape the snow from the windshield and start the car so it could warm up by the time he needed to drive to work so he could support a family.
Once they started to sleep together, they experienced together all the sweet transports of love that had traditionally been reserved for the honeymoon, but they scrupulously avoided the 20th century sin of being possessive, and it was important to them that they did not use the name of love for what they were experiencing together. Susan had read enough advice in the women’s magazines that she surreptitiously enjoyed, which warned not to “scare a man away” by mentioning commitment.
Sven, for his part, had practically memorized The Playboy Philosophy, which preached that women could now be enjoyed as independent playmates, without any need for courtship or love or commitment. The intimacy that had traditionally been reserved for marriage could be treated as care-free play. The Pill was supposed to free women from so-called slavery to the demands of their biology, free them to enjoy uncommitted intimacy as if they were men.
Sven was dedicated to his Art more than she was to hers. He took the idea of making art out of one’s life a lot further than most. He first decided to make his life into a work of Art by being intentional in every single action he performed. Walking home in snow from the college to his apartment in Fargo across the Red River of the north, he would examine every footprint he made with his big boots. He pondered every word he uttered, savored every feeling he felt.
Then, he decided, simple awareness was not enough.
Somehow he got a hold of a huge roll of printing press paper and manoevered it into his apartment. He slept on it and he ate on it. He drew on it, and he wrote on it. He did almost everything imaginable in it, although he still made use of the bathroom for taking care of a few basic needs. Every morning, he would roll up the paper with the traces of his life from the day before on one side of the room, and unroll fresh paper onto the middle of the floor on which he would create the art of that new day. In the back of his mind, he hoped that someone would discover his Art and showcase his genius. I have no idea how that could have happened.  Until he was discovered, he would continue his labor of love.
Susan got a job offer in the Twin Cities with the help of a friend of her father’s, she told Sven. She would prefer staying around Moorhead and making art, but she needed to find a way to make a living, since her parents expected her to move out on her own after college. She hoped he would ask her to stay with him, but he didn’t.
When Susan found out she was pregnant, soon after she moved, they both were surprised. She took the Pill regularly, at the same time every day. People back then didn’t realize that a fairly high percentage of pregnancies occur when a woman is using the Pill. From charts I’ve seen directly from Planned Parenthood, 6 out of 100 women get pregnant every year, even when they take it exactly as prescribed. The next year the same odds apply again. Planned Parenthood, of course, is always there to “help” with aborting the babies of the 6% each year.
The Pill was, as the saying goes, a crap shoot. If the dice landed against them, people trying to live the bogus promises of sexual freedom who found themselves about to become parents didn’t realize that they were simply the one of the six out of a hundred with an unplanned pregnancy each year. They would blame themselves. Actually, quite often the man would blame the pregnancy on the woman.
A blessed event was no longer seen as such, but as a trap, a failure, a punishment.
Lots of men secretly or not so secretly believed that a woman who got pregnant was trying to trick him so she could get him to marry her. She was trying to possess him. And for that duplicity, which was often just in his own mind, many men felt they were justified in getting as far away from the entrapping female as possible.
Sven was, Susan told me, not like that. He was very supportive. He “helped” her a lot, she said. For one thing, he helped pay for the abortion.
It was her choice he told her. Nobody should force her to carry a child that wasn’t wanted.  He didn’t want to be a parent. But if she did, that was her choice. If she didn’t, well that would make things easier.
He also “helped” her by coming down from Fargo to take her to Planned Parenthood for the abortion. She was surprised by how much like a cattle call it was when they got into the big waiting room. Everyone was told to arrive at the same time, and then they had to stand in line to pay. The women were called into the abortion offices one at a time in order of when they had paid.
Sven had forgotten his credit card, and so he had to go back to her rooming house to get it while she sat and waited and watched, and he had to go to the back of the line again. She was also surprised that so many of the women were in tears. Down the hall from the waiting room, she could hear one woman wailing in a recovery room.
And wasn’t Sven good because he waited for her in the waiting room and patiently comforted her afterwards?
I was surprised to hear she needed comfort. She had been so matter of fact.
She told me that she never expected what she felt afterwards. Her whole physical being convulsed for days with feelings of intense grief. She told me that even though her pregancy had been only six weeks along, her breasts leaked milk and her hormones were raging and she felt she was craving her child. The way she explained it, I tried to tell her, it seemed to me that even though she thought she “knew” that she did the right thing, her body seemed to know better what she had done, and what she had lost.
Susan had been deeply ashamed--not because of having killed her child in her womb, but  because of her unexpected sorrow. But, she said Sven was very good to her even so. She was betraying her own resolve not to be clingy or dependent, but he took it in stride. Sven stayed with her for three days afterwards, until she was able to get out of bed and take a shower and start to eat again. He kissed her goodbye, gave her a lingering hug, and went back to Fargo, back to his big roll of paper.
Modern romance.  No, not even romance, I thought. God help us all.
We talked about some other things, and I excused myself after a while to go pick up my kids at their after-school program. As we walked back down the hall towards the front door, door #1 opened just a crack, and then closed again, and to my relief I was spared a second sighting of her flasher landlord.
I also consider myself lucky that I didn’t get to meet Susan’s unemployed biker boyfriend.  Dark had descended on the late Fall afternoon. When I got to my car, I used the windshield wipers to push off some of the damp leaves that had fallen on the windshield while I was inside, and I drove off to the grammar school to pick up my kids.
A year later, Susan met a more decent man at the law office, who had a regular job as an accountant. She didn’t go completely traditional by any means. After a few months, she moved in with him, but, then, to my relief, they started planning their wedding. I asked her if she had told him about the abortion. She said he understood and that he respected her choice. Later on my two kids and I attended the wedding at the First Methodist Church. When we went to the reception in the church basement, we ate sheet cake and jordan almonds and drank the Kool-aid punch at a table by ourselves.  
I don’t know what happened to Susan after that.  It’s hard enough to know what had happened to her before that. I pray that God has changed her mind and her heart. May God grant to her and to the men in her life and to all of us, true repentance for the sins of our youth, and may He give us His pardon and His peace.
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