Megan Nolan, above, has written an essay, called Aborted, about an abortion and relationship she had when she was 18 years old.
I sat at a grim bank of computers in Luton airport, staring lovingly at the email I had been waiting for. My results had arrived and I was officially a student of Trinity College. From a freakishly early age, attending Trinity was bound up in my idea of what it meant to be interesting and modern and intellectual. Woozy relief spread through me and I ran outside to call my dad. It briefly occurred to me to worry that some telltale errant dial tone would alert him to the fact I was abroad, but it passed without notice and I cried telling him the news. We had both worked so hard to get to this point, past the anxiety and inertia that threatened to derail me. I hung up and leaned back against the cool brick wall. I felt faint and a light sweat was breaking on the blonde fuzz of my upper lip and forehead. I wondered if it was hunger, or satisfaction after months of uncertainty, or just the morning sickness returning.
Nearby, my boyfriend tried to hail the cab that would take us to an innocuous leafy suburb where we would pay for my abortion with fistfuls of sweaty fifties, half of which I had been forced to ask my mother for. I learned I was pregnant in the toilets of a theatre in Waterford, before sitting through an excruciating production of Romeo and Juliet.
Afterwards I sat in the corner of a disused carpark and called him and howled down the phone. He said the right things and promised I would be ok. Abortion is illegal in Ireland, so as thousands of Irish women a year are I was forced to get a last minute flight from Dublin to London. The whole journey felt blatantly sordid, like our fellow passengers could smell the illicitness. I felt steely and brave and defiant defending myself against the imaginary accusers in my head, but itchy with revulsion when I thought of real people knowing. I cried in the taxi when we told the driver the clinic’s address. The procedure was painless and over in minutes.
This surprised me, having been educated as I was in a Catholic convent school. Religion lessons were served with a side of The Silent Scream, an outrageous American anti-abortion film from the 80s which appeared to show a woman being tortured and a fully formed newborn baby being dismembered and tossed around with merry abandon. When it was over I sat in the aftercare room with other girls and women in a similar state of muted boredom. I read magazines and a nurse only a little bit older than me told me I had done really well. I knew the truth, which was that I had done nothing much and that I felt nothing much about it, which was so frightening I refused to know it again for several years.
My boyfriend was 29 as he waited there in the clinic. I had just turned 18. Already as I write those inarguable facts I want to dispute them. I want to say “But it wasn’t like that!” I wanted this essay to be about how wrong I now think our relationship was, how angry I increasingly feel about it as I get older, how I sometimes zone out and go into a daze of bafflement that it all took place. And yet, I still have the urge to defend it, and him. It would be easier to write this if he was a terrible person, some domineering two-dimensional 50 Shades of Grey type nightmare. Instead I feel obliged to reassure you that he was the funniest person I had ever met, and he adored me in an uncritical way I had never experienced, and most of all that he knew it was wrong. Does that make it better or worse? He wasn’t a habitual seducer of 17-year-old girls, he agonised over whether to be with me in a way I never did over him. In fact I’m struck in retrospect by how irate I was about his reluctance — my diary recounts several incidences of being in bed and him suffering crises of conscience, turning away, pacing around the room, muttering “We can’t do this.”
And yet in the end we always did do it; I don’t know how much value can be awarded to this ambivalence given that the outcome always remained the same.
When we met I was in a band, and part of the reason I had left my first, serious boyfriend was that I wanted to take advantage of all the hedonistic pleasure being really young and really alone and in a band, which, in case you have not gathered from Motley Crue biographies, is pretty fun. I was in my final school year at the time and would get the bus to Dublin on weekends to play gigs and flirt with music guys. They were heavily fringed drummers or fast-talking promoters or just gig-goers with good t-shirts and haircuts. We tussled in spare rooms at house parties and held hands in smoking areas. It still took me by surprise that adults wanted me — I remained embroiled in the teenage game of comparing myself to the longer-limbed, honey-highlighted rich girls I went to school with.
But I was 17, wearing knee socks and tiny party dresses, and visibly thrilled at being let out in the world. Of course men wanted me. It both disgusted and excited me that idiots on the Irish Hip Hop forum debated whether I was old enough to fuck.
I didn’t mind too much when it transpired that they had no interest in getting to know me, when they inevitably had some long term on-and-off girlfriend they neglected to mention, or a too-recently broken heart, or decided belatedly that they were too old to be with me. The transient heartbreaks seemed a small price to pay, because for the first time in my life I felt beautiful and special. It seemed likely at last that I would have the sort of future I had imagined for myself, one where I was desired and busy and cool. It is both telling and completely insane how deeply fulfilling it felt to me to be photographed by a street style blog. I wanted to be seen to be creative and dynamic, while in reality I was too busy being looked at to create anything meaningful. Mere proximity to the endeavours of others felt substantial and progressive to me.
It was this time, growing tougher and feeling unassailable, which made me think there was no romantic encounter I could not negotiate playfully. There was no man I could not handle, no situation I could not glacially dismiss with a click of my fingers if necessary. When we met he was interviewing the band for a magazine he wrote for. I loved him almost immediately, for how funny he was and how good a writer, for the pleasing and thoughtful way he mocked me. If I thought it troublesome that he was eleven years older than me, I thought of it only as the kind of trouble I should wilfully get into to see how it panned out. I felt like that about everything back then, and I still can’t shake it entirely — that no matter how terrible the possible outcome, you should plunge right in to any passing situation to see if something interesting will emerge.
We were together for five months before I became pregnant. My friend and bandmate Maebh heard us laughing uncontrollably one morning as she passed his bedroom door and remarked that it sounded like what a relationship should be. I felt petite and perfect with him, like a thing naturally delicate and lovely enough as to be deserving of diligent care. I sent him emails of Tennyson poems when we were apart during the week, in between doing my mocks and writing dreamily in my diary about how astonishingly we were overcoming the age difference. I believed without question in my own maturity, my unique ability to overcome the ostensible difficulties of our relationship. Perhaps it was bad for OTHER teenagers to date men a decade older than them, but those girls surely lacked the precocious self-assurance I was blessed with. I could do it, because I could do anything
I thought I wanted to be with him, but really what I wanted was to BE him. I wanted to be a writer; I wanted it so badly I stopped being able to admit it. I wanted to be funny, and popular like him. I had become so distracted by appearing a certain way that I forgot to actually be anything. It felt like if I stood close enough to being a writer, and closed my eyes really tight and held my breath maybe it would all eventually be mine. He had a life, a personality, opinions; I had a MySpace page and a suitcase full of sequinned playsuits. I tried to breathe in the wholeness of him instead of trying to build my own life, and when that failed I had nothing.
Cracks appeared. I went out for drinks with his friends and felt hotly aware of myself when I had to admit to a doctor and an architect that I hadn’t yet sat my Leaving Certificate. I swallowed my teenage-ness, pretending that my fondness for reading newspapers beside him could be construed as successful domesticity. I flaunted my sanity and good humour, trying to prove to everyone he knew that I was worth the trouble, worth the embarrassment. He bought me a pair of heart-shaped sunglasses once on a trip to the beach.
“Megan,” my mother said incredulously, “He bought you LOLITA sunglasses?”
I laughed this off. I really found it funny at the time.
After the abortion things became less amusing. I felt the near-miss of his baby and everything it implied rushing past me, whistling by my ears like barely dodged bullets. I felt his unconditional, protective love settle uncomfortably on my skin, and wanted to shake it off. I counted the age the baby would have been at regular intervals, imagined its hypothetical fingernails hardening; but I did this only because culture had told me this is what I would want to do, not because I cared. I started college, and quickly realised I wanted to leave him.
I treated him terribly, breaking up and veering back repeatedly. I was dying to be alone, but it seemed that to reject his love was to reject love in the abstract, that the alternative to this particular fidelity was a life of promiscuous excess. I was awful to him, and I have no doubt that I hurt him. I spent years feeling guilty for this, but I find no remorse left inside of myself. I feel only rising horror with each year I get closer to the age he was when we met. When we were together I literally did not know how to go grocery shopping, pay a bill, clean a fridge. Why did he think I would be capable of the rather more muscular activity of being in a healthy relationship with somebody of his age? Because I was special — but there aren’t any special teenage girls.
They’re all special, of course, all dazzling and entertaining, all outrageously lush and fertile as greenhouses. But I was still forming. I was better than most girls at behaving like an adult, and I felt like one most of the time but that delusion unraveled when I began college and summarily started to lose my mind. I missed my home and parents all day, and drank all night. I felt sick of the secret of my abortion, felt like painting it on a billboard to get rid of it.
Sometimes the only thing that could soothe my mania was very slowly applying, removing, re-applying makeup. Yes, it seemed to say, things are bad, but isn’t it incredible how I can still look like a human being? It seemed there was no amount of makeup that was too much; that there was no state of being that could be too different to what I really was. And no matter what the difference was, ugly or good, the more the better.
It wasn’t his fault, of course, that I got pregnant, any more than it was mine — it was a failure of birth control. It wasn’t, strictly speaking, his fault that when I began college I felt dirty, and tired, and old instead of excited and fresh. But no matter how many different ways I try to think it, how I try to shift the facts in his favour or against, whether I feel poisonously angry or full of soft remorse, he is always the 29-year-old in our equation. I think of us being together and am seized with deep horror that I cannot reach into the memory, take his hands off of me, bring myself home.
Soon after we broke up for the final time I started seeing somebody completely different. The new guy was young and beautiful, had the most upper class accent I had ever heard, and didn’t mock me even a little bit. He took me to his family home in Wicklow for the weekend. I wondered if this was what college was like, following boys to country manors, drinking whisky and smoking cigars in front of the fire. There were actual hens in their outhouse, and he taught me how to poach their eggs. We went out to the fields after midnight, blind in the lightless evening; we held hands and the iced leaves snapped sharply as we ran over them laughing.
I felt young for the first time in months, and wondered if he was the answer to everything. The next day, I returned to my attic in Rialto, sat in bed and looked around me. I was only 18 but the scenery of my life was collapsing like wet cardboard already, and it would get a lot worse before it got any better. I looked at my records and notebooks, props for a character who had been killed off, and knew suddenly that the new boy couldn’t save me. I couldn’t inhale his life; I couldn’t be him. I was going to have to be myself, at last, somehow.