Fiction — November 29, 2022 18:40 — 1 Comment

MONTY – Misha Berson

When I consider how I got into the daunting business of running a women’s health clinic where abortions are often performed, I think of Monty.

Her given name was Montgomery, bestowed on her by parents who wanted a son and chose to name their daughter after a great-uncle. But since her peers in kindergarten couldn’t articulate all four syllables, she was Monty from age five on.

Monty came to San Francisco from a mid-sized rural town in Ohio, where her family had lived for several generations – something unimaginable to me, an urban child of immigrants. They were church-y people who ran a small Main Street department store, the kind that did most of its business back then in underwear, overalls and shirtwaist dresses.

Going off to a city in the vanguard of a cultural revolution, and to a college that would soon be engulfed in a long, explosive student strike, was to them tantamount to hurtling over to the moon for breakfast. And it was a rare act of outright rebellion for Monty, who was soft-spoken and an avid student (she was a whiz at math), a good girl who didn’t cause a fuss.

When she answered our ad for someone to rent the spare room in our happily chaotic group house in the city, we accepted her right away (our rent was overdue). But it took a while to realize that Monty, whose startling aquamarine eyes were nearly covered up by a fringe of pale bangs, and whose hunched shoulders suggested someone trying to fold into herself, was not so conservative – or timid. She was really a pinched-back flower about to bloom.

Since her folks paid for her out-of-state tuition but otherwise expected her to “build character” with a part-time job, she couldn’t at first cover her share of the rent ($70 a month for the largest bedroom in our little house in the Avenues, phone and utilities included). So Monty decided to share it with Annette, a native New Yorker she met in a Beginning Spanish class – who in her own style was equally socially shy and awkward. (They both wore size 10 shoes which was maybe another bonding factor.)

In keeping with the rest of our décor – walls adorned with posters of psychedelic rock gods and our friends’ slapdash art, little furniture – they hauled in two single mattresses from the Goodwill, covered them with canary yellow Indian print bedspreads from Cost Plus, and stuffed their clothes into the single narrow closet.

At first the two seemed an inseparable but odd pair: the lanky, blond, corn-fed shiksa in white jeans and windbreakers, who flattened her “A”s, and the dark-haired, zaftig Jewish Brooklynite who wore skirts and prim blouses, and who called her birthplace “New Yawk” and liked to drink “cawfee.” But scratch the surface, and they were both 18-year olds far from home, at the edge of the Pacific Ocean, and very curious about having close encounters with sex, drugs, rock ’n’ roll and radical politics.

They found it all in our little bungalow. We all supported the strike and cheered on the leaders. But none of us led. Smoking weed and roommates sleeping with casual acquaintances and cruise-by lovers were commonplace events. Fierce debates about how to best support the Black students’ campus demands, about vegetarianism vs. hamburgers, the Beatles vs. the Rolling Stones, could rage on into the wee hours.

Often leading these discussions was Andy, our long-haired mailman who frequently dropped by after work in his rumpled blue uniform. A few years older than us and an ardent supporter of Chairman Mao – until he somehow traveled to The People’s Republic of China and discovered that the Rolling Stones were banned there. “They won’t even let their people hear ‘Street Fighting Man!,” he wailed in disgust.

He hoped his next planned vacation, a stint cutting sugar cane alongside el pueblo in Fidel’s Cuba, would be less of a downer.

Though Monty lurked on the edges of our micro-scene, and managed to study far more than the rest of us who were in school, she was a tender bud that gradually opened and began to flourish in a hothouse of youthful camaraderie.

When we held impromptu dance parties (a benefit of having no couch or chairs in the brown-carpeted living room, only a record player), she joined in exuberantly. After a few delicate, tentative puffs on her first joint, she quickly got the hang of getting stoned and grew less inhibited about expressing her opinions. (She started out to the right of the rest of us politically, but as it turned out not by much).

After confessing to Annette and me that she’d never had a boyfriend, Monty began to flirt with some of the men who lived in or hung around the house – the wannabe guitar player with the pickup truck, the activist journalist who tapped out all-night manifestos on his portable Olivetti, the shaggy pot dealer, the guy with slicked-back hair who lived in the garage and took our rent money every month to give the landlord (and, we later learned, helped himself to a cut off the top), and so on. And she pressed for details after I brought a guy home for the night. I answered with the swaggered air of an allegedly worldly woman of 19, though my first-hand knowledge was modest. (I hadn’t had a real boyfriend in high school either.)

When classes were held off campus or cancelled altogether as the student strike grew more fervent and the measures by college officials to quash it more punitive, Monty slacked off on studying and came along to the late-night rock concerts, the antiwar demonstrations and the street festivals we all frequented. She swept the hair back off her face, grew it longer and stood up straighter, more confident in her apple-cheeked prettiness.

Yet whenever her mother called, Monty reverted to her Ohio child self. The only telephone in the house was in the tiny kitchen, and we could all hear her try to reassure her anxious parent that a) yes, she was studying hard and making good grades; b) no, the campus was safe and the strike wasn’t so bad; and c) all her roommates were chaste and sober church-goers – omitting that the people who sometimes answered the phone early in the morning were random sex partners of her roommates, or draft dodgers, or both.

We were all faking out our parents on a number of things, including Jimmy, a very tall, sweet, skinny boy with floppy white-blond hair and a great barking laugh who we affectionately called our house mother. We all knew he was gay before he (or his stern father) did.

When a stray mutt, white and scruffy and lap-sized, turned up on our doorstep one morning, Monty took him in and fed him out of her meager wages and table scraps from our communal stir-fries and leftover pots of lentil chili.

And eventually Monty brought another stray home, from a rock bacchanal in the park. He was a tall, brooding redhead with a gleaming black motorcycle. He wore a raffish bandana around his forehead and reminded us of Captain America in “Easy Rider.” It was surprising to see Monty, with some embarrassment, slip him into her room without introducing him to any of us. And poor, sidelined Annette had to borrow a sleeping bag and crash in the living room, which she did uncomplainingly.

Monty’s beau came around a few times. But our encounters with him were so brief, and his comments so monosyllabic, that we kept getting his name wrong – was it Roy? Or Ray? Or Ron?  She never talked about him, so we never knew for certain.


Some weeks after their brief affair ended, and the guy roared off to the desert (“to get my head together”), Monty began skipping her sporadic off-campus classes more often and calling in sick to her waitress job at a diner on Market Street.

“I really feel crummy,” Monty confided to me one morning after spending half an hour in our only bathroom. But she fended off any suggestions about getting checked out at the student health service – ostensibly because it meant crossing the picket line.

I was eking by on a part-time job, too, earning peanuts (but lots of free books) at a neighborhood bookstore, but I liked Monty and wanted to help. There was something unabashedly wholesome about her, and though we teased her about her naivete it was also appealingly different from the rest of us. We considered ourselves more liberated. And, I’ll admit, it was fun watching as her inhibitions began to melt off, one by one.

So when I came home to find her slumped teary-eyed with an attentive Annette on the living room carpet, trading slugs from a bottle of cheap burgundy, I thought she resembled a crestfallen child who had just lost her favorite doll.

It was, of course, worse (and far more adult) than that. “What’s going on?” I asked her friend after Monty took the beloved dog (christened, in Midwestern-ese, Snowflake) for a walk. “She found out something bad,” Annette told me somberly.  “Really bad.” Monty was too upset to talk about it herself. Though our other housemates were out or holed up in their rooms with the doors closed, Annette dropped her voice to a hoarse whisper, as if we all wouldn’t find out eventually. “She’s pregnant.”

For some reason this seemed unbelievable to me. Monty? How was that even possible?  She was just a girl, a kid, our age but younger, who had slept with a guy – what? Three times?  Four? (My own naivete.) Then I flashed back to Ted, a high school friend back in Washington DC who got his girlfriend Tina pregnant in our senior year, and despite his 17-year old mad poet, screw-the-establishment stance married her.  An image from their nuptials haunted me: their schoolbooks piled up in the rear window of his rusted old Ford Fairlane, as they drove away from the scene of a gloomy wedding at City Hall. Only a few of us and his alcoholic father were in attendance. And where were the couple now, with a two-year old baby?

“God, what happened?  Didn’t the pill work?” I asked. Annette whispered, “She didn’t get the pill. I told her, but she didn’t get around to it yet. I think they used a condom. Maybe.”

I wanted to kick myself: why didn’t I tell Monty to go to the free clinic, if she didn’t want to cross the picket line? Or lend her the money to get to a private doctor?  It was obvious the ginger-haired motorcyclist, who helped her shed her virginity and vanished, was not marriage or even emotional support material. Even if he had been, she didn’t know how to reach him in whatever desert he’d zoomed off to. Going home to Mom was also clearly not an option, but an invitation to humiliation and subjugation.

There was one course left. “We could find someone to do an abortion,” Annette ventured tentatively. But who? We didn’t know any abortionists, and I wasn’t so sure that any old someone was better than the coat hanger approach I’d heard ghastly stories about. The next day I called the free clinic and asked for advice. Saying I was inquiring for “a good friend” was not a fib. Though I knew I could have been easily asking for myself.

“Look,” I told Monty and Annette the next day, as we sat in a park meadow where no one could eavesdrop on us. Monty had just barely regained her composure, but she was jittery and wasted from a night without sleep and too much burgundy. “I found out there’s some new state law that just passed in 1967 about getting a legal abortion from a real doctor if your mental or physical health is in danger. You can apply for it. I’ll try to find out more if you want.”

“But, but what does that mean?” asked Monty, barely raising her forlorn head. “You mean I’d say it would kill me to be pregnant? Or I’d go nuts?”

That was, more or less, what it meant. There was an application you had to fill out to request a “termination.” And then you had to go before a board of hospital doctors who decided to let you terminate or made you have the kid – or by turning you down, forced you to find somebody who’d get rid of it, no more questions asked.

Monty seemed uncharacteristically angry, but not at Ray/Roy/Ron. Or at her mother for warning her about “bad boys,” but not sufficiently about female biology. As someone who had never displeased anyone until now,  she was mostly upset with herself.

And soon Monty deflated, and simply checked out. She flopped down on her mattress with Snowflake curled up beside her, as soon as she got home from her job. She ate only the bare minimum, stopped going to classes (such as they were). And when her mother called she ordered us to just say she had a really bad cold and couldn’t talk. Her pink cheeks grew blotchy with bursts of acne. She looked both bloated and thinner. Her girlish delight had fled.


By then the household knew about Monty’s plight, and it cast a pall over the place. The party wasn’t entirely over. We still smoked dope together, gobbled through jars of peanut butter and bags of Oreos during the midnight munchies. We still raced off at a moment’s invitation to midnight concerts, to trips down the coast or up to the mountains, to student fundraisers for the strike leaders. But the dance parties were on hiatus. The volume of the record player was turned down from blasting to nearly quiet, and we were listening to sweeter Judy Collins and moody Neil Young than to The Who.

Jimmy fretted and fussed, trying to get Monty to eat more. The other boys averted their eyes whenever she emerged from her room, as if they had knocked her up. They probably had more pre-coital conversations about birth control with bed partners than before – though, maybe not.

Me and Annette set out to find a shrink to vouch for Monty’s mental fragility. That wasn’t easy. She didn’t have money for an appointment, and even if she’d had it, how would we know who would back her up? Maybe the shrink would get arrested, and Monty too, if this all-powerful board of medical people knew the report was phony or exaggerated?

We decided we’d pass the hat, and raise what we could. The only contact I knew of at that point was my psych professor, Dr. John.  He was a graying, paunchy middle-aged guy with a wispy beard who embraced the counterculture with giddy enthusiasm. It felt like he urgently wanted to be as young as we all were (we thought he was, God help him, over forty). But the best he could do was arrange a field trip one afternoon to lie on the beach and smoke opium with us (which he supplied). He spent the next class lecturing about Aldous Huxley and urging us to describe our psychedelic trips, and no one ratted him out.

Since the strike had turned the campus into an occupied armed camp, and Dr. John was holding classes in his apartment, I asked if I could have a private word one afternoon when we were finished reclining on his throw pillows and drawing mandalas. I explained Monty’s dilemma and he listened sympathetically. “I’d like to help but I’m not a licensed therapist,” he told me, with a sigh of regret. “They’ll want a more credentialed person. Let me think who I know and call you.”

As we waited for that call, and a week went by, Monty was growing frantic, in a depressive way. She was suffering through waves of morning sickness, and barely functioning. Her mother was getting impatient when we kept saying her usually robust daughter was sick in bed, and then changed our tune to lying that she was studying in the library for a big exam. (As if any of us would have set foot in the campus library during the strike.)

Finally Dr. John got in touch with a name and a phone number for a psychiatrist. The man was “on our side,” and a “post-Freudian.” He was willing to see Monty, but we had to pay his fee ($100!) so he could examine her and write a “full and persuasive” report for the “Neanderthal medical establishment” that made the decisions.

We scheduled the appointment. We scraped together the money (cash only, the doc specified, as if he was going to do the abortion himself), and asked one of our roommates to drive me, Annette and a zoned-out Monty to the shrink’s office. It was in a fancy Victorian apartment building on Nob Hill with a breathtaking view of the Bay. He swept out to greet us in a reception room adorned with Asian antiques. Dr. Z was a rather elegant looking guy whose collar-length black hair was handsomely streaked with grey, and his British accent and tailored Nehru jacket were impressive. He curtly ordered me and Annette to wait outside.

After what seemed like a lot less than an hour, we spotted the bedraggled Monty coming out of his building. We peppered her with questions: Did she have to take some kind of sanity test? Did she act nuts enough to convince him? Did he tell her exactly what to say to the board?

If we needed any proof that Monty’s innocence was shattered, it arrived. “He made me sit on his lap, and pretend I was talking to my daddy,” she answered with a smirk. “And he kept asking me, over and over, if I’d kill myself if they don’t let me have the abortion.”

She had hoped the shrink’s visit and his report (assuming it was exactly what she needed) would be the end of it. But no. It took another week to be notified by the powers that be that yes, they’d received the psychiatric report. And yes, she still had to come in for a personal interview.

By that point, we weren’t so sure telling them she was crazy would be a lie. Everything Monty thought she knew about herself, everything she’d been raised to believe, was crashing down fast. It became clear that appearing before these people who would decide her fate wouldn’t be like what guys we knew went through when trying to evade the Vietnam War draft. They’d head into their induction center physicals wearing a dress and women’s makeup for that purpose only. Or they’d scratch up their arms to fake heroin addiction. Staying awake all night, drinking 10 cups of coffee to get one’s heart racing, was another popular tactic.

Yes, their lives were at stake if they were sent off to a jungle war they didn’t believe in. But Monty wasn’t going to be dressing like or pretending to be an entirely different person. She was just herself: a teenage kid, guilt-ridden and miserable, in trouble.

At this point Monty was probably ten weeks pregnant. She was so worried that she smoked an entire joint nearly every night (courtesy of our generous pot dealer),  and practically lived on the pungent fumes. She called her parents back finally, and insisted with forced enthusiasm we could easily detect that everything was great – even “groovy,” a word I never heard her use before.

She stopped writing papers or going to work. The uniform no longer fit her, and she couldn’t summon up the cheerful subserviency that gets you good tips. “I’ll find another job,” she promised, as if we would ever kick her out if she missed her $35 of rent.

The interview took place South of Market, at a big gray public hospital, on a rainy afternoon. If Monty’s interrogators (all men, it turned out) had any doubts about her sanity they would need to have their heads examined. She was hollow-eyed. Her blonde hair was dirty and matted – she hadn’t bothered to wash it for a while. Her hands shook when she poured herself a glass of water. None of this was contrived.  Or if it was, she deserved an Oscar for the performance.

I couldn’t go along, but the ever-loyal Annette did. After a grim bus ride, she waited for Monty in the hospital’s linoleum-tiled, drab green lobby. The interview dragged on and on, and we never did find out exactly what they asked Monty during the grilling that took all that time.

“It was like they wanted to catch me out,” was all she volunteered afterward, in a steely voice. “The worst was when they asked if I wanted to hurt myself, or harm the fetus, as if I was a monster. I said yes, yes, yes, to everything. And I cried a lot.”

They listened poker-faced to her answers and told her she wouldn’t hear their verdict for at least another two weeks. It would come in the mail. The timing would make her at least three months pregnant. Then she would have to find a clinic or private doctor to do the deed – that is, if the powers that be let her.

“If I wasn’t so scared and had the money I’d look for somebody right now, anyone,” Monty said that night. “Anything but go back home and get put in one of those awful Catholic homes for wayward girls. Or have people try to talk me into keeping it. I can’t. I can’t.”

Four nights after the appointment, Annette came into my room in the middle of the night. She was so shy, it took her a while for her to blurt out what she had to say loud enough to wake me up. “It’s Monty, she’s, she’s really bleeding a lot, she’s doubled over in pain – what do I do?”

I am not the most practical person in the universe, but compared to Annette in that moment I was able to take charge. I ran into their bedroom, took one look at the wet streaks of blood soaking the sheets and Monty’s anguished face, and called an ambulance.

When it arrived and we helped her to the vehicle, Snowflake scampered after us. And as they loaded in Monty on a stretcher, the little dog tried to jump in too. She was shooed away. And we were so scared for Monty we didn’t notice when Snowflake ran off into the night, never to return.

We did not realize, in our own ignorance, that Monty was having a miscarriage – a spontaneous one, with no knitting needles or other implements involved.  In the emergency room they interrogated her briefly, but got to work. After all traces of her pregnancy were sucked away, she stayed overnight and got a blood transfusion. The next day she took a cab she couldn’t afford home.  And what friend could be counted on to mop up the blood, toss the sheets in the trash can, launder fresh ones, and buy a rose to stick in an empty beer bottle by Monty’s bed? Not me, I’m ashamed to say.  Annette, of course.

When Monty returned she looked relieved but haggard and pale. She took the news about Snowflake stoically. She got a new waitressing job the next week, and insisted on paying off her debt to us. But she wasn’t the same. She’d had enough of her West Coast experiment, and informed her parents she was ready to return to Ohio and finish college in the Midwest. I never saw her again after she left. Neither did Annette, who stayed in touch for a while. She wrote to Monty several times, received a couple postcards in return, and then nothing more.

Adulthood was, in general, not kind to some in our circle. The musician overdosed on heroin. Another guy we knew committed suicide with his father’s hunting rifle. And Jimmy finally came out to his family in the late 1970s, only to die of AIDS a half dozen years later.

Annette stayed in the city, but we never got close. I don’t know what became of Monty, but I can’t forget her. At the women’s clinic where I work I’ve seen dozens of Montys – or girls who would have been like Monty, if the clinic wasn’t there to help them.

Two weeks after Monty’s miscarriage, while she was still living with us, a pair of official looking envelopes arrived in the mail for her. One was a bill for another $100, for the ambulance ride. The other was a letter from the health board, stating that her therapeutic abortion had been granted on the grounds of mental instability.


Misha Berson is a Seattle-based writer distinguished by her years writing for The Seattle Times as a theater critic.

One Comment

  1. Loraine Hutchins says:

    thanks for this.
    sad it makes so much more sense now than it used to!
    i can really relate to the whole story.

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The answer isn't poetry, but rather language

- Richard Kenney