Brie didn't belong here. Her posture, her clothing - cashmere sweater, camel hair coat folded carefully across her lap - was selected specifically to let everyone in the clinic know that this was not the sort of place she frequented.
She sat, back rigid on the equally unyielding blue plastic of her chair, and stared through veiled eyelashes at the people around her, specifically the women around her, rating them on what she jokingly called the Waffle House Index. She was from the South and everyone knew you could tell how much class a person had based on the likelihood they'd wind up waiting tables at a Waffle House by the time they were 25.
The scale was easy to deploy when it was necessary to judge someone at first glance. Brie herself was, of course, a one on the scale, meaning not bloody likely to ever work in a Waffle House, not very likely to even set foot in one unless her kids begged for some hash browns, "scattered, smothered and covered" and she was too tired from her tennis lesson to argue.
The girl across from her was about an eight on the Index. With her overdone eyeliner, black dye job grown out so two inches of dishwater blonde roots were showing and breasts squeezed up and over the neckline of her too small tank top, that child looked one eviction notice away from putting on a yellow name tag and asking "What'll ya have?" to truckers by the freeway.
When they called her and she opened her mouth to say goodbye to her boyfriend, slouching next to her - quite a catch that one, un-ironically sporting a stained muscle tee over his pale, scrawny frame - Brie saw the girl's teeth were yellow and askew and noted the nasally twang of a Cracker accent.
'Oops!' She smiled to herself. 'I was wrong!'
That girl was definitely a nine on the Index, working her way to a 10 if she didn't get to a dentist and fast.
Brie pursed her lips. That was pretty much what she'd expected when she made the appointment at the clinic, a roomful of white trash hoochies supported by their equally trashy mamas, or maybe by a prize like Mr. Muscle Tee over there, sullenly dragged along by an insistent girlfriend, but what was a mother to do?
The thing was, there were other women in the waiting room too. Women she wouldn't have expected to be in this sort of situation, Asian grad students reading Kafka in college logo sweatshirts, teary-eyed wives holding their husband's hands. The one thing they all had in common was that everyone was studiously trying to avoid eye contact with any other person in the room.
What a predicament. When her daughter called her late at night from college, sobbing that she was "in trouble," that she'd met a man at the hotel bar on her senior class trip to New York and now she was seven weeks pregnant with an unexpected souvenir, Brie hadn't hesitated for a moment.
Spring break was just a week away. She told her daughter to come on home, that mama would take care of everything. She woke up early the next morning, called the clinic and, as though scheduling a pedicure, made the appointment for her daughter's abortion before she'd even had her coffee.
She hadn't driven her daughter to years of dance classes to perfect her posture, hadn't sat through hours of violin performances and SAT practice tests and orthodontist appointments, hadn't paid for four years at a private liberal arts college so that her child could wind up a 10 on the Waffle House Index, knocked up by some Yankee who wouldn't even claim responsibility, working night shifts so she could take care of a baby all by herself. They simply weren't those kind of people.
And yet, here she sat, she thought wryly.
Maybe they should have spent more time with Jesus. She wondered how much longer her daughter would be.
Emma was in one of the sterile rooms off the hallway, talking to a nurse. She had already had the state-required ultrasound - the fetus was eight weeks old, did she want to see it? Decidedly not. And now she had to sit through this interview before moving on with the rest of her life.
"Are you here of your own free will today? Is anyone forcing you to terminate this pregnancy?"
Emma looked out the stippled glass of the small window, wondering what the weather was doing out there. She thought of her mother, determined to make things right with her perfect little girl, telling her not to mention any of this to anyone. She thought of her father, the disappointment on his face if he knew how irresponsible she'd been.
"Emma, is anyone forcing you to terminate this pregnancy?"
The thing was, her mom didn't know the truth, not really. That Emma really wasn't sure WHO the father of this baby was - that she had met a guy in New York and there had been that one crazy night in his hotel room high above Times Square, but she had also been sleeping with a guy on campus, this gorgeous, funny guy who seemed to really like her but, with about as much in his head as a potted fern, she knew there wasn't a future for him in her life. She had just been busy and lazy about taking her birth control pills and got caught. She knew better!
After missing her period, she told herself she was just stressed because of finals, and even when the nausea started to hit her at random times, she attributed it to a stomach bug. But, lying in bed after she nearly puked at a sushi restaurant, she knew she was deluding herself. She rose in the dark and drove to a Wal Mart at 1:00 in the morning, buying a pregnancy test where no one knew her and rushing, red faced, to the public bathroom.
In the silence of the stalls, she ripped open the foil pack and shifted around to pee on the absorbent tip. The package said to wait four minutes but a pink cross popped up before Emma could even say a desperate prayer for a negative result. Her face crumpled and she sat heavily on the toilet, sobbing quietly into her arms, her positive pregnancy test squeezed in her fist. Ain't motherhood grand?
Her mama didn't know, but she had gone to her boyfriend first, and, unbelievably, he had been the most gentlemanly of Southern gentleman about the whole damn thing.
"If you want to get married, we'll get married," he told her grandly. "My family loves you, my dad will help us out! We can make it work!"
But Emma didn't want that life, didn't want to be a mother yet, didn't want to marry out of necessity and be saddled to this sweet but slightly idiotic man for the rest of her days. She had plans, graduation, a career to look forward to and this was definitely not on the timeline. Her mom had this scale you used to judge people, her "Waffle House Index," and having a shotgun wedding in a maternity dress at 22 was definitely white trash Waffle House material.
So she had called her mother, with her grandiose ideas of proper behavior and family honor and lied a little bit to get her help. Her mom also had a Visa Black card to pay for the appointment, hallelujah.
"No. No one is forcing me to terminate this pregnancy," she said firmly.
The nurse nodded and handed her a release form to sign and then, without ceremony, sent her to get undressed for the procedure.
In a little stall, with a small television playing I Love Lucy, Emma removed her clothes and slipped into a worn, cotton gown. She folded her clothing carefully, and placed them on the bench in a neat pile. She didn't want to be the girl who'd throw her clothes in a pile and leave her underthings hanging out for all the world to see.
The nurse had asked her to take a seat until she was called so she sat daintily, hands folded in her lap. Over the madcap noise of Lucy and Desi on the television, she could hear another sound and cocked her head. It was like a vacuum, like a vacuum cleaner sucking up... jello? What the hell? And then she realized what she was hearing and wished someone had left her the remote. The volume wasn't quite loud enough.
In a few minutes the nurse returned and led Emma, bare footed, into a dim operating room. They passed another nurse on the way, leading an anesthesized young woman slowly toward a door at the end of the hall. Damn. With her raccoon eye shadow and homegrown dye job, that chica would surely have been a 10 on her mom's Index!
A doctor stood by the bed, smiling gently. Suddenly it became very important for her to show this man that she wasn't like that other girl, that she was better, smarter, a good girl...that he shouldn't judge her based on the stupid decisions she had made - that she was trying to make all that right!
"Emma, I'm Doctor Gregson. I'll be taking care of you today."
He reached out a hand to shake. The kindness in his eyes was killing her.
Climbing onto the orange pleather gurney, she smiled sweetly at him. "It's a pleasure to meet you, Dr. Gregson," she said, wondering what he must think of her, did he have children of his own, did he think she was a whore, but meeting his eyes bravely, as if they were at a business interview.
"The procedure today will just take a few minutes, and then you can get on your way," he told her. "You've elected to have twilight anesthesia. I think that's a good choice. Why don't you lay down and we'll get your IV going."
Emma took a deep breath and lay back, offering her hand to the anesthesiologist like a good girl.
"I see your chart says you are from Lake Oconee," Doctor Gregson mentioned. "I've done some golfing there."
Emma saw this as her chance to set herself apart from the other patients.
"Oh yes. We own a place at Reynold's Plantation," she told him, wincing as a needle poked into the vein at her wrist.
"Have you played the Ritz course there? It's really lovely in the spring."
If she could just pretend this was cocktail hour at the clubhouse everything would be all right. She tried to lift her head to look at his face again, but the anesthesiologist urged her to lay back.
"Oh yes, my wife and I love that course," he said. "The azaleas are gorgeous this time of year. Now Emma, if you could just count backward from 100 for me."
Emma began to count. "100, 99, 98, 97..." She thought about the vacuum sound she'd heard and tried to twist her head to see what might have made that noise.
"90, 89, 88..." Her mind began to drift and she thought of her mother and wished she could be here to hold her hand.
"80, 79, 78..." She remembered the girl with the raccoon eyes and wondered what she was doing right now. Was she sad? Relieved? Was her mother holding her hand now?
"70, 69, 68..." That girl had laid right here on this same table, not 30 minutes ago.
"60, 59, 58..." She had made a silly mistake too, had been here to fix her life just like Emma.
"50, 49, 48..." It didn't matter what her hair looked like, or her makeup, or her boyfriend.
"40, 39, 38..." They weren't so different, Emma and Raccoon Eyes.
"30, 29, 28..." All the women here, they were all the same, just the same, once they made it to this table.
Not better or worse, but the same.
"20, 19, 18..." What the hell did her mother know anyway? But for the grace of God, they were all 10's on the Waffle House Index.
Tears slid from Emma's eyes as the darkness descended.
"10...I'm a 10, I'm a 10, I'm a 10," she whispered and then was unconscious.