Warts and All


Leigh Curran

It’s 1964.  I’m twenty and sitting uncertainly before an abortionist with my classically trained musician boyfriend.  Career-wise I’m fresh out of acting school – ready to make my mark.  My boyfriend’s hitting his stride as an accompanist – playing for Itzak Perlman and the like.  Neither of us wants to be stopped in our tracks by a baby.

Our artist-friends understand – help us raise the money for an abortion and send me to a gyno for shots to induce a miscarriage but, at this point … nothing.  So we stare Plan B in the face – paunchy belly, kitchen table, back alley and all.  We’re scared but determined – secure our appointment for the following day with half the fee.  That night we get lucky.  I start spotting.  The gyno can now admit me to the hospital for a d and c and nobody is the wiser.  Shortly thereafter, my diaphragm with the microscopic hole, the baby that tried to take advantage and my boyfriend are behind me.  My artistic destiny in front.  I never look back.

 Fourteen years later, my feet are in stirrups in a spotless abortion clinic.  The man I’ll love for the rest of time is in the waiting room grieving the loss of our possible child and unable to ask me to marry him.  For a split second I waiver.  I want so badly to want to have children.  Particularly his children.

 The doctor snaps his gloves.

 But I also want them to be conceived during lovemaking … not a high-speed fantasy fuck on the Orient Express as this one was – swear to God.  Plus I’d never use pregnancy to trap a man – I have my principles and even though we sort of talked about marriage in the car – I really don’t want to walk down the aisle pregnant.  In short, I’m loaded with ideals.  I use them deftly to keep from facing my deepest fear that I’ll feel trapped – as my mother and grandmother did – both promising career women who lost the freedom to fully realize themselves and so resented the children they meant to love.

The doctor inserts the speculum – tells me I’ll hear a sucking sound then asks if I’m sure.

“Umm … yes … I’m sure.”

And it’s done.  My second child sacrificed on the altar of fear and career.

I get in the car with my possible-husband.  He’s silent as we pull away from the clinic.  I cop to my holy terror about having children and he cops to his about getting married.  He knows he loves me and I know he’ll make a fabulous father.  We just need to work through his firmly held conviction that a woman’s place is in the home and a man’s place is pretty much anywhere because he’s the provider.

That September, my possible-husband becomes my actual-husband and six months later, while on location shooting a movie, indulges in a one-night stand with an extra and gets her pregnant.  He begs me not to leave and because I believe in his essential goodness, I stand by while his extra comes back for more and more money.  My husband, cowed by guilt, shame and grief, can’t look me in the eye so he looks in the eyes of others.  When he can’t take himself any longer we talk.

“I’m such a weak and evil man.”

“You made a mistake.”

“What if I make more?”

‘He needs space,’ I think.  ‘It’ll be rough but if I love him unconditionally he’ll realize how lucky we are to be married, we’ll move to a deeper level of understanding – he’ll support my need for a career and we’ll happily raise our babies together.’

But the Unconditional part of unconditional love eludes me.  I slam cupboard doors, curse my sewing machine and resent caring for my vegetable garden.  My husband isn’t around to eat what I grow, anyway – he’s in this play or that movie and as his career flourishes – mine sputters … a play produced here … a commercial shot there … but nothing leads to anything so it all feels arbitrary.

A dull panic joins the shame in my stomach which further fuels my rage and that, in turn, confirms what I’ve known since my mother dubbed me her Selfish Child – my heart is and always has been the color black.

After eight years of trying, my husband and I stumble into separate lives.  He visits his accidental daughter in Utah and I shock myself by falling hard for a good woman – a good unavailable woman – in New York City.  There’s much back and forth and gnashing of teeth on all our parts – ending, for me, with the “thrill” of being left by a man and woman simultaneously which drives me deep into bed – never to rise again – no husband, no wife, no career and two aborted babies.

And in the stillness of unrelenting loss, my unborn babies float to the surface like drifts of smoke and I find myself wondering who they would’ve become.  Who we would’ve become.

I struggle to the bathroom – punishing myself with thoughts of cheerful babies, devoted fathers and the earthy contentment that comes with nurturing new life.

I splash water on my face – sick to death of what might have been.  I scream into a towel.  But the babies hang in the ether so I look at my raggedy reflection in the mirror and dare myself to connect.

“I’m sorry,” I whisper, “for putting my ideals, my fear, my ambition – ahead of your human potential.  I’m sure you would’ve been very nice people.  But … at the time … uch!  Back to bed.”

Soon thereafter, I’m invited to write, perform and direct a one-act for a non-profit using the Arts to give kids life skills.  My acting partner is a tough, ten-year old girl from Hell’s Kitchen.  I’m grateful for the opportunity – decide not to mention my inability to connect with children, because secretly I feel the beginnings of an urge – not The Urge – I never felt that – but an urge nonetheless, to make it up to my unborn babies.

My kid challenges me with tardiness and disrespect.

‘Oh, god, she knows I’m a baby killer,’ I think, ‘Or she’s one of my babies come back for revenge.’

But despite my discomfort, I look forward to getting out of bed.  There’s a life-affirming vibe permeating the company.  Kids and artists are open, excited – the work loaded with integrity, respect, imagination.  My ten-year-old and I perform our play still circling each other but we give it our best shot.

I leave the theatre feeling uncertain and enlivened as kids and artists tumble onto the street and in the aftermath of their departure a voice inside whispers: “This is where you belong.”

That’s all it says.  But I know not to shilly shally when I get my marching orders.  I become a class mentor.  Volunteer in the office and go through a training to teach kids to write plays and that’s when I know, for certain, I belong in the work but not in New York.  I’ll bring it to LA.

Three months later, car loaded to the gills, I swoosh down the 5 – all of LA spread before me and for the first time in my career, the wind’s at my back.  Never mind I don’t know what grant writing is – I can write with passion.  Never mind I don’t know the difference between an Executive Director and an Artistic Director – someone will enlighten me.  Never mind I don’t know the first thing about kids.  I’ll be myself – warts and all – we’ll find our way together.

So the Virginia Avenue Project is born and I’m immersed in the lives of struggling school-age children inspiring them with my passion for writing and performing – for living fully – with kindness, integrity and respect.  And as my kids come to life, the color of my heart shifts and I remember what it was like being a kid – not the kid my mother felt stuck with, the kid she loved when she forgot her life had been derailed.

In January, 2013 after 21 years as Founder/Artistic Director, teacher, artist and substitute mother, it’s time to retire – I badly need peace and quiet.

No sooner have I set my course than my partner and I become grandmothers.

When Agatha was born, her mother had to study for the bar – a grueling, 24/7 ordeal that we wanted to help her accomplish – so, Agatha came to live with us and, suddenly, at the ripe age of almost seventy, I found myself mixing formula at 4am; peeking into the crib to make sure she was still breathing, bathing her in the kitchen sink and missing her when she went to her parents on weekends.

But the night I drove Agatha around to calm her cries, I knew for certain if my babies had been born when they weren’t I would’ve taken their crying personally.  The interruptions would’ve angered me.  The responsibility would’ve turned into resentment.  Those weren’t clever excuses at the time – they were my truth.

Now I hold my babies as close as Agatha – two souls who probably knew they’d never become human – but who made a mother out of me when the time was right and, in the process – changed the color of my heart.

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