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Paying the Toll
A story and interview with Carol Fischbach
Eyes closed, breaths in quick gasps, he hovered over me, our bodies sweaty, musky, waterbed baffles sloshed beneath us, he thrust his hips faster faster faster until…
You won’t get pregnant, he said. He, the father of five with his ex. I didn’t bother with contraception.
A medical school wannabe, he was a dentist. My boss. My lover. My drug dealer. Maybe he didn’t know I stole prescription pads and pain meds from the unlocked cabinet in the dental office. But maybe he did.
He was eighteen years older than me. Me. Always subservient. He knew best. Right?
I got pregnant.
I sat on the edge of the waterbed the morning after I found out. His bed. His house. I’m so hungry now, I said. My hand hovered over my belly. You’re eating for two, he said. Of course he said that.
He walked into the bathroom, his bathroom, the ensuite, back then, somewhere in the 1980s, we just called it an attached bath. I watched the back of him, naked, his lumbar scoliosis from childhood polio made his spine tilt to the left. There was a patch of hair over the indentation on his left hip, black hair, thicker than his skullcap. His head tilted to sling words over his shoulder like an unused sweater in the heat, hanging by one finger, Schedule your abortion at the end of the month. After you finished the bookkeeping. So cold. My hand on my belly. I’m sorry, I whispered.
When I was seven, on summer vacation with mom, dad, big brother, north of our house in Lindenhurst, Illinois, way north up to Cable, Wisconsin, to a cabin on a lake. I got up early, everyone still asleep, except my dad. I heard the screen door close, rushed to the back door too late to say goodbye or ask if I could go with. His back to me, a back always straight, he consistently chided my brother, Stand up straight. Take your hands out of your pockets. Wear gloves if your hands are cold. He never said those things to me. He never said much at all to me. He ambled down the path to the lake, hands never in his pockets, fishing pole in one hand, tackle box in the other, thermos under one arm, jacket under the other.
I was used to seeing the back of him. The thinning brown/gray hair on top of his head. The neat part on the left side that I’d watched him make so many times. How he’d wet his short-every-Saturday-cut hair then comb it forward over his forehead. With precision, he incised the part like a surgeon, combing strands first to the left, then to the right. Then he’d comb the back. Rub his palm over it.
There was a small pit in the skin in the middle of his neck just under the hairline.
On vacation there was no ironed, collared shirt, just his white t-shirt tucked into his pants, his belt in every loop, not too tight, not too loose.
He climbed into the small boat tied to a short pier, the aluminum boat rocked and creaked while he stowed his gear, then he sat in the middle seat, looked out over the lake, drinking in the north woods like it was his first coffee of the day. Eventually he took up the oars, paddles lapping smooth water with rhythmic movements. I could almost hear his breath in time with the steady gentle splash then pull through the water until he was far enough away where he moved to the back of the boat, yanked the cord to start the small motor, just a gentle hum from that distance. Right hand on the tiller, eyes forward, never looking back, until the boat rounded the bend, followed the curved shoreline. He disappeared, leaving small ripples that barely made it to shore. Soon the water stilled like he’d never been there. I put my hand on my belly to quiet the growl of morning hunger and went back to bed.
The flush of the toilet, the rush of water from the bathtub spout, the clank of the shower valve pulled. I still sat on the waterbed unable to remove my hands from my belly. Fingers rested lightly on skin that would soon stretch. An embryo buried deep inside me at a stage of development like a fish. With gill slits. Slits that become gills in fish. Slits that become jaws and ears in humans. The life beneath the skin.
Daddy, can I help? He had five fish on a chain with a closed hook that pierced all their mouths. Not the barbed hooks that caught them, this was a bigger one that kept them imprisoned, their gills opening, closing, desperate for water to breathe, some still flapping tails, losing energy, becoming still. Perch. Flatheads. Northerns. The chain clanked when Dad slapped them on a workbench in a shed to clean them for dinner. He didn’t look at me. I tugged on his pant leg. Please, Daddy, teach me how to clean the fish. I always had to beg.
His right hand held the scaler, the hand with the tip of the little finger missing, an accident at work. Work, an hour away from home. Work and friends that always kept him away from home. He pushed the scaler firmly on the fish skin, scraping off the scales, their armor, their protection. Scales like tiny sequins that glistened and stuck to my fingers when he finally relented and handed me the tool. Like this, he said, holding the tail and moving the scaler from tail to gills.
The fish was cold. I held the slippery tail in my sweaty hand, tightened my belly against the sick feeling, held my breath against the fishy smell. I hated having dirty sticky slimy hands. I slid the scaler, didn’t hear scraping. Press harder, he said, his eyes on the fish. I pressed harder, maybe there was a scrape. Was I doing it right? Was I doing a good job? He watched, silent, waited then eventually he nodded, that’s enough, he said. He finished cleaning my fish then dipped them all in a bucket rinsing off loosened scales before he cut off their heads and tails, gutted their bellies. I would never do that part. Unless he asked.
Once I heard the dentist/lover/dealer in the shower, me still on the waterbed, my fingers left my belly and reached into the drawer in the bedside table, grabbed one or two or three of the round white pills hidden under Kleenex. Shoved them in my mouth. Sipped some diet pepsi from an open can. Soon relief, soon the bloom of altered state that felt like wellbeing in my belly, soon the codeine would work. I laid down, tugged the covers over me.
The days were a blur. A visit to an OB/GYN an hour away from home. A doctor, a man with beige framed glasses. He was slight, shorter than me, thinning gray hair. He faced me, gentle concerned eyes focused on mine. Are you sure you want this, he said. My breath caught. I looked away. I didn’t know what I wanted other than the next pill and the magical thinking that there was still time to have a child. Get off drugs. Maybe I could change the dentist/lover/dealer’s mind about having a child with me. Maybe a child with thick black hair.
I nodded to the doctor.
I didn’t know I would never get pregnant again.
Dad smacked his lips on the fried fish he cooked in the cast iron pan. Fish everyone seemed to enjoy.
I kept picking bones out of my teeth.
I turned in the quarterly numbers to the accountant. I don’t remember which quarter. Which year. Which season. I don’t remember if I wore a sweater or a jacket that morning. I don’t remember the argument with that man, the father of my child, I only remember my tears. Getting into the car alone. Fingers sticky on the steering wheel. A small overnight bag on the passenger seat. Shallow breathing. Pills in my purse. Morning nausea. Backing out of the driveway. Gills and scales. Getting on the tollway. Belly gutted. Digging in my coin purse. Slippery coins. A quarter. A nickel. Paying the toll at the exit to Lutheran General Hospital. Thirty cents clanked into the basket. The tollgate opened. I forced my foot off the brake and on to the gas.
I put one hand on my belly. I’m sorry, I whispered.
Jen: Hi, Carol! Wow. Thank you for sharing a powerful piece with our readers. I'd like to dive right in. Can you tell us a little more about this piece? What inspired you to write it?
Carol: I have so much grief around never having a child, so I have written about my abortion many times. The most troubling things in my life are the ones I keep revisiting and rewriting in different ways, trying to gain new perspectives. I like to start out with prompts/portals and see what comes out with a stream of consciousness. I trust that there will be connections between sections even when they are not immediately apparent—this one is a helix going back and forth in time. The connections between relationship with father and relationship with husband, the insecurity of a child not seen and how she carries that into marriage.
Jen: What is your favorite book/story?
Carol: One of my most favorite books is Bluets by Maggie Nelson. How so many fragments centered around a central theme of color tell a story. It’s brilliant. I love the color blue. I relate to feeling blue and alone and depressed and doubting myself and having trouble with relationships. I also write in fragments, pieces that might seem disparate but collectively tell a story. Memories tend to be revealed in fragments and that is how I write them. I love how images and objects tell the story. I love how this book has widened my view of “blue.”
Jen: How has your education or professional career impacted the way you approach creative
Carol: Education and work mostly taught me rules and regulations. I have a BA in Communications and I’ve done technical writing in the corporate world. A few years ago, I earned an MFA in Creative Nonfiction. I love being a student and if given a chance, I’d probably go back for another degree. On the other hand, reading and writing groups and workshops teach me how to break rules—how to alter accepted structures of writing so that it is more of an art form. I love writing in hybrid forms such as braided pieces, helixes, and palimpsests. I’ve learned so much from Lidia Yuknavitch and Corporeal Writing where creativity in form is embraced. I’m always looking for new things to learn, not just to alter my writing, but to alter my perspective on life.
Jen: When and how did you start writing?
Carol: I wrote in my diary when I was young and over the years did personal journaling. In school, Literature was always my favorite class. In the 1980s I took a creative writing class and loved it. Somewhere around 2007 I began taking writing workshops and one of the first ones was with Dorothy Allison and Lidia Yuknavitch. I haven’t stopped since then. Writing has become my
creative outlet, my therapy, my greatest joy and, at times, my greatest frustration.
Jen: What do you find most difficult about the writing/publishing world?
Carol: The number of amazing writers out there. There are so many new ways to write—ways to incorporate visual and spoken pieces. There is always something new to learn and it’s hard to keep up with it all, not to mention that it is an extremely competitive field. I think it’s harder for marginalized people too, which includes aging women. Recently at the AWP Conference in Seattle, I was happy to see so much of it devoted to writers of color and LGBTQ+, but there was a shortage of programs for older writers.
Jen: What inspires you to share such visceral and authentic stories?
Carol: We live too much in shame—thinking we are the only ones who experience or do bad things. Sharing is about being seen. Heard. Unconditionally. So much healing happens when we share our stories. It’s about helping others feel they are not alone. It’s hard to be open and vulnerable and sometimes we need to blaze the trail for others—like others have done for me. There’s also the importance of sharing our stories so that others who have not experienced trauma can open their views of life and people that go beyond their own sometimes limited experiences.
Jen: I could talk about your writing all day, but you are also a reader/editor for Unleash. I'd love to end by asking what it is that you look for in a strong piece of writing?
Carol: When I read something, I want to be transformed. I want the words to capture me and take me on a journey where I forget everything going on around me. I want to learn something new. I love images and metaphor and honesty and guts to tell hard stories—then I don’t feel so alone in mine.
The stories that impact me the most are the ones I must occasionally put down because the writing has taken my breath and I must stop and retrieve it. I need time to process what I just read. Right now, I’m reading The Copenhagen Trilogy and it’s slow reading—it’s so beautifully written and deep with meaning that I need time to sit with the words. I also like to have room for my own interpretation – I don’t want a piece to imprison me in a specific perspective or just give me answers. I like to read the process of the author/characters and how they work through their story.
Carol Fischbach sat at the actual Pinewood Table for nearly five years and is now a Pinewood Squares OG. She is a retired RN, Reiki master, and a student archetype with an MFA in Creative Nonfiction along with several other degrees, but her favorite classroom is everyday life and listening to and reading others’ stories. Writing is the portal through which she enters her life, seeks insight and reframes her stories. At 74 she is still trying to figure it all out. She is currently working on a memoir that feels a lot like herding cats. She has been published in Khora, Propeller, Nailed Magazine, Oregon East, Tide Pools, the Port Townsend Leader and won 2nd place in the 2020 Women’s National Book Foundation for her essay, Butterflies, Berries, and Beef.