Dear Abby said that a girl could get knocked up from something called heavy petting.
She didn't use the phrase "knocked up." She did say "heavy petting."
I didn't know what heavy petting meant. Like in the petting zoo? Like how a dog pants after a good scratch? I spent the next two weeks thinking I could be pregnant at 13.
A girl in a nice suburban school like mine just did not get pregnant at 13. Not even the stringy-haired girls passing notes to Newtown grits growing thin mustaches got themselves pregnant at 13. Not that I knew, anyway.
I was a good girl whose parents were the type to make a big deal out of table manners. What if you dine with the President someday, they said.
If I am pregnant, I thought then, I'd have to get an abortion.
It was a purely theoretical, 13-year-old thought. Even though I was conducting some illicit hormonal experiments with a boy a year older, I found out soon enough I wasn't with child. No one ever knew the difference.
Except me. I could never forget the difference. My brief terror made me see with different eyes while everyone else trotted along like she could never possibly have been anything other than she was: fortunate. Since then I've never been able to judge any woman's decision about her pregnancy.
Sixteen years later, when my theoretical kid could have been old enough to drive, I'm sitting with a young woman I'll call Erin. At 18 she already has two kids, ages 5 and 2.
"I started early," she sheepishly says as we start the interview.
She didn't start anything early.
"I shouldn't have tried to be fast," she says.
Twelve-year-olds aren't fast. They're curious, unsupervised and desperate for attention and affection. They're sometimes exploited, and when a sexual partner is 19 they're raped.
And soon Erin is crying so hard she struggles to breathe.
Mother smoking crack, turning tricks, appropriating Erin's social security benefits from father's death. Uncle tries to molest at 10, Mom does nothing. By 12 she's pregnant. By 18 she has two kids, no high school diploma, no money, no one to turn to and no idea what to do next.
I can barely make out her croupy words.
"I think all the time about calling 241-KIDS because maybe I'd just be better off by myself," she says. "But I just can't give my babies up. Babies need a home."
She knows, having been in foster care for a year herself.
"Breathe," I say. "Just keep breathing."
"I'll never pass the GED test," she says, hiccuping hard now. "I just know it. I know I'm not smart."
I tell her, "You can make a change in your life. It will be very hard, but if you just don't give up you can do it."
I believe it, she doesn't. The odds look bad: Who wins this one?
In the movie Juno the 16-year-old titular character pops out a baby and hands it over to a barren woman named Vanessa who's desperate to adopt.
I wonder if it would make a difference to note here that Erin and her children are black and her real name is closer to La'keshia than Erin. How many childless Vanessas are lusting to adopt her kids?
I would never suggest that Erin's children shouldn't have been born. But until I see the same people who are trying to outlaw abortion lining up in support of Erin -- not just with sterile cash assistance drawn from deeply-resented taxes -- their rhetoric is shit to me. Those people are speaking the language of entitlement and better-than. They never caught the reflection of their phantom lives.
Others who believe that abortion is morally wrong also show up. They volunteer time and invest their money in communities. Such kindnesses make more celestial noise than a sea of morbid signs on angry posts.
As Erin cries, I pray. To what deity exactly, I don't know.
Our young women are being tricked. The trick tells girls that their natural impulses and curiosity make them fast, guilty, bad -- and make them lovable, at least for a few minutes.
Fast, Guilty and Bad settle in for much longer.
This trick tells them that a girl's sexuality is a measure of her worth and "girl power" is code for flaunting it. The trick says they're nothing more than dolled-up tricks.
Some people think it was God's choice they were born as they were. When I sit with Erin, I don't pray to this God.
I pray to the God who can show a way to women like Erin, some God who might be painting an errant route with a luster I can just barely see.
CONTACT STEPHANIE DUNLAP: firstname.lastname@example.org