by Richard Grayson
In the fall of 1993 I was wearing a bulletproof vest in Gainesville, Florida. I had volunteered to be an escort at our town’s women’s health resource center and I was holding hands with a teenage girl as we walked through a line of pro-life demonstrators yelling at us.
A Florida obstetrician-gynecologist and another escort had been shot to death in Pensacola earlier that year.
I was doing this because…well, partly because I had a crush on the black lesbian who ran the women’s health resource center, someone with whom I served on the board of directors of the Human Rights Council of North Central Florida. (At times I am not a very good homosexual.)
But it was also because of something that happened when I was impossibly young. I got Melissa’s mom pregnant.
It was 1971 and we didn’t know what we were doing. We were college kids and she was barely 18 and it felt like love for both of us. What did we know? We were both Mensa members who’d read a book by Masters and Johnson and yet the only birth control we used at first was withdrawal.
But lucky for me and Melissa’s mom, there was Assemblyman George M. Michaels.
A Democrat, Mr. Michaels represented a largely rural, mostly conservative and heavily Roman Catholic constituency in the Finger Lakes region of west-central New York. He authored the bill that made the bluebird the official state bird.
In 1970 legislation was introduced in New York to allow abortion in the first 24 weeks of pregnancy if a woman and her doctor agreed to it.
Melissa’s mom and I didn’t pay any attention to it at the time. We didn’t even know each other then. I was a freshman at Brooklyn College and she was a senior at James Madison High School. I was going to antiwar marches and she was starring as Snoopy in You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.
It was three years before Roe v. Wade. New York had a Republican governor and a Republican-controlled state legislature.
Of the 207 legislators, just four were women.
I met Melissa’s mom at a New Year’s Eve party in Trump Village in Coney Island. She was a freshman and I was a sophomore.
Melissa’s mom had long blonde hair and a crooked smile and a cute scar on her nose, from the time her crazy uncle threw a Coke bottle at her. She wore a granny dress and smelled like lilacs.
Around 11 p.m., we went into our host’s 13-year-old brother’s bedroom. Just before 1970 ended, I was going to kiss a girl, really kiss a girl, for the first time.
By 1970, a few states had carved limited exceptions out of what was essentially a nationwide ban on abortion. Hawaii had approved the nation's first broad legalization, but it applied only to Hawaii residents. The proposed New York law went further because it had no residency requirement.
It was snowing that New Year’s Eve, and Melissa’s mom and I watched the flakes fall on Trump Village named for the father, not the son from a window in a kid’s bedroom on the eighteenth floor.
Because of the snowstorm, we had to spend the night at the apartment with a bunch of other kids who were at the party. At first I was concerned because I didn’t have my antidepressant medication, but I forgot about that as I lay on the floor next to Melissa’s mom.
There weren’t enough pillows for everyone, so we had to share a folded-over towel to rest our heads on. We slept in our clothes, taking off only our shoes. I had white athletic socks on.
Assemblyman Michaels personally favored a woman's right to choose but in previous terms had voted twice against legalizing abortion at the behest of the Cayuga County Democratic Committee.
He did so again on April 1, 1970 when the bill went down to a narrow defeat.
By April 1971, I had been seeing Melissa’s mom for months. I hadn’t been around girls much and she was a virgin and we stumbled into things together. It seemed real natural at the time.
Her parents both worked and her sister was always off at her music lessons and we spent most afternoons in her bedroom. I learned how to unclasp a bra and take a girl’s barrettes from her long blonde hair and put them on her dresser.
She once said to me, “When you take off your glasses, that’s how I know you mean business.”
I laughed and decided not to tell her I didn’t like the word business used to refer to what we were doing.
From Melissa’s mom, I learned about the pain some girls had when they got their periods and also what happened when they didn’t.
In the New York State Assembly, some Democratic legislators brought up the abortion bill for reconsideration on April 9, 1970.
It needed 76 votes to pass, a clear majority of the 150-member Assembly.
When the roll call was finished, the count ended at 74 to 74.
One Assemblyman was absent. Speaker Perry B. Duryea Jr., a Long Island Republican, did not vote, in keeping with the tradition that the speaker votes only if it affects the outcome.
Melissa’s mom and I used to fight a lot, but we also made up quickly, usually in bed.
She could infuriate me, and then she’d make me laugh. Like when she’d pick up her sister’s guitar and strum it, singing this stupid song she made up:
I loved my horse,
My horse loved me.
Had to send him
To the glue factory.
I miss my horse.
He’s dead, of course.
During the roll call, Assemblyman Michaels had been thinking of his family’s Passover seder the night before and what his son and daughter-in-law had told him.
Before the clerk could bring the vote to a close, Mr. Michaels stood and asked to be recognized. At first he rambled, his voice thick and trembling, and it was unclear where he was going.
But heads turned when he said, “My constituents will condemn me for what I am about to do."
I told Melissa’s mom it would be all right. We made an appointment at Planned Parenthood in downtown Brooklyn, and I got up early one September morning it was the first real autumn day and I put on the jeans she’d bleached for me, the ones on which she’d put a daisy appliqué on the right knee.
She was really nervous. Planned Parenthood was on the fourth floor of 44 Court Street, the same building where I’d been to plead my case to my draft board when they classified me 1-A.
So on the sixth floor of that building there was a file that listed me as a homosexual and thereby unfit for military service and on the fourth floor I found myself the only boy in a room of teenage girls, munching on plain donuts and listening to a nurse from Planned Parenthood tell us about birth control.
She said she was always glad to see a boy come there.
On the first floor of 44 Court Street was a Zum Zum, part of a chain of fake German fast food restaurants. I told Melissa’s mom we’d get bratwurst and sauerkraut there when our appointment with Planned Parenthood was over.
Assemblyman Michaels rose to take the microphone, his hands trembling.
"I realize, Mr. Speaker, that I am terminating my political career, but I cannot in good conscience sit here and allow my vote to be the one that defeats this bill," he said. Then he started to cry.
By September 1971 Melissa’s mom and I had done a lot of crying.
At Planned Parenthood, I stayed behind in the waiting room trying to read an episode of “Can This Marriage Be Saved?” in McCall’s Magazine while she was being examined by a handsome young black gynecologist.
He helped us a lot.
Assemblyman Michaels tried to compose himself.
"My oldest son just called me a whore for the vote I cast against this," Mr. Michaels said. “He said, ‘Dad, for God's sake, don't let your vote be the vote that defeats this bill.’"
"I ask that my vote be changed from 'no' to 'yes.' "
"I fully appreciate that this is the termination of my political career," the assemblyman said. "But Mr. Speaker, I must have some peace in my family. And I therefore request you, Mr. Speaker, to change my negative vote to an affirmative vote."
He crumpled into his seat and buried his face in his hands as bedlam swallowed the chamber. Someone screamed curses at him. An assemblyman from Manhattan came over and kissed his forehead.
Speaker Duryea then cast the final "aye" vote, making it 76 to 73.
The next day, the Senate passed the Assembly version of the bill.
The day after that, April 11, 1970, Governor Rockefeller signed it into law. "The wives of the Senate and the Assembly put this bill through," he said.
Exactly a year and a half later, early in the morning of October 11, 1971, I took Melissa’s mom to Coney Island Hospital.
This part you’re not going to believe, so you might as well just pretend I’m making it up: I borrowed money for the abortion from a Roman Catholic priest.
I’d met Bud answering his ad in The East Village Other personals when I was 17 and he was 22 and in the seminary. Bud was crazy about me, but I was really scared of sex and said I wasn’t ready.
Bud thought I was messed up, but he was a good guy. He’d had a bad experience with a priest himself when he was younger, and that’s why he said he would only get involved with non-Catholic boys like me who wouldn’t know him as a priest.
We remained friends. Just before I met Melissa’s mom, Bud had introduced me to the 17-year-old Jewish boy he was seeing.
I think Bud thought abortion was wrong, but he lent me the money anyway. I paid him back in a few months from my salary at Alexander’s Department Store in Kings Plaza.
Assemblyman Michaels sought a sixth term in 1970, but the Cayuga County Democratic Committee denied him renomination and he lost the June primary in a four-way race.
"I was just a small country lawyer," Mr. Michaels said about his decision. “I found myself caught up in something bigger than I was.”
Melissa’s mom and I also got caught up in something bigger than we were. So did the teenage girl back in Gainesville ten years ago. I squeezed her hand when someone called her a baby-killer. She squeezed mine back.
A few months after our baby would have been born, Melissa’s mom left me for another guy, someone I’d considered a friend.
Her new boyfriend actually came to my house and offered to reimburse me for the three months’ supply of birth control pills I’d paid for at Planned Parenthood.
I told him I didn’t want my money back. I was hurt and angry about our breakup but I wasn’t that low. With my friend Mark M., I’d worked to get a staff gynecologist for the female students at Brooklyn College.
It shocked me when Melissa’s mom married her new boyfriend a few months after that day he came to my house. It was sudden, but it wasn’t because of a pregnancy.
They were married for three years and didn’t have any kids. Later her husband would live in Brooklyn Heights with his boyfriend.
I served as a legislator, sort of, one year. While I was going for my M.A. in English, I represented Richmond College on Staten Island in the City University of New York Student Senate. I was elected unanimously because no one else wanted to run for the office.
On the fourth Sunday of every month I’d drive to Upper East Side for University Student Senate meetings with Mark M., who was the senator representing Brooklyn College that year.
We never had any really tough decisions to make.
Melissa’s mom left New York and finally stopped going with gay guys. In 1979 she married an older man who had his own business. Unfortunately, very soon afterwards he had a stroke and died.
The third time was the charm for her. In San Diego she met Melissa’s dad. They were emotionally mature and financially stable when their baby was born in 1988.
Assemblyman Michaels was 80 when he died in 1992. His oldest son, who had become a rabbi, delivered the eulogy at his funeral.
I got in touch with Melissa’s mom again when I lived in Gainesville and worked for gay rights and volunteered at the women’s health resource center. She’d send me pictures of Melissa with her annual Christmas card.
I asked Melissa’s mom if she still made up silly songs like the one about the dead horse. She said she left that to her sister. But then she told me about one she’d made up during the Iran hostage crisis, around the time her second husband died:
In the holy city of Qom
When a boy loves a girl
He says “Zum Zum”
Zum Zum, Zum Zum,
Zum Zum, Zum Zum,
Zum Zum, Zum Zum.
I thought about the German fast food place at 44 Court Street and told her she should sing that song to her daughter.
Eventually Melissa’s mom stopped answering my e-mails. I think she got upset with something I had written.
People change and times change. You know that 13-year-old boy in whose bedroom Melissa’s mom and I first kissed? He and his husband live in Boston with their two kids.
I wonder what Assemblyman Michaels would have thought of that.
I’ve seen a recent photo of Melissa on the website of her aunt, a well-known folksinger I’m sure you’ve heard of.
Melissa is about the age her mom was when I first knew her.
Melissa has brunette hair in a pixie cut, but her face resembles her mom’s a lot. Just as pretty, but without a nose scar caused by some crazy uncle.
Every once in a long while I think about what it would be like to be the father of someone in their thirties.
I really can’t imagine it. Terrence, my ex-boyfriend, is in his thirties.
Both Bud and Melissa’s mom’s first husband died in their thirties, of AIDS. I went to their funerals. They were human beings, not fetuses. I think there’s a big difference.
Terrence argues with me about this. He is pro-life.
My doctor who is, believe it or not, the sister of Mark M.’s daughter-in-law tells me it’s not good for my blood pressure to argue with Terrence.
That’s probably why I’ve never told him about Melissa or her mom or Assemblyman George M. Michaels.
Maybe someday I will.
See Richard Grayson's nomination for the Million Writers award at Story South
Richard Grayson (www.richardgrayson.com) is the author of several books of short stories, including The Silicon Valley Diet and I Brake for Delmore Schwartz. His latest book, published in October 2005, is Diary of a Congressional Candidate in Florida's Fourth Congressional District , based on his McSweeney's diary of his 2004 race for a seat in U.S. House of Representatives. He teaches English and is a lawyer.