I Know What’s Best for You: Stories on Reproductive Freedom, edited by Shelly Oria, is a multigenre anthology with a focus on the crisis of reproductive rights in the United States. This is Part I of We Bled All Winter by Shelly Oria. Parts I,II and III are featured in the anthology. When you buy the book, you’ll also receive the supplement, I Know What’s Best for You All Over the World, free as an e-book. Editor and author Shelly Oria will be touring through the summer of 2022, joined by contributors to the book as well as many other writers and artists. You can read a Q&A between her and McSweeney’s publisher Amanda Uhle here.

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We bled that whole winter. I fell in the snow once, carrying groceries, and when I rose I watched the white beneath me swallow up some red, making a light pink stain. You could see sprinkles of street dirt if you looked hard. It was beautiful in the way anything can be beautiful.

My girlfriend hacked the neighbors’ internet searching for answers. How much bleeding was normal when terminating a pregnancy—I didn’t listen well when we left the clinic, but more than a few days seemed excessive—and was there any precedent to her sympathy bleeding? “Sympathy bleeding” was what we called it, what we guessed was happening. The internet said what the internet always said: most likely we both had cancer. When Jasmin returned from the backyard—leaning against the fence, we could often catch the stolen signal—she seemed exhausted. It’s over, she said, we’re dying. She was joking, but I could see the fear. I chuckled, to remind her we were fierce. Oh, also we should see our doctor right away, she said. The internet always assumed everyone had a doctor.

I appreciated my girlfriend’s blood at first, this physical proof of her worry, then resented it because it felt like her body was mimicking mine. Maybe I just wanted sole ownership of my one trauma; back home, where my girlfriend’s people are oppressed by mine, my girlfriend suffered multiple unfathomable traumas. She watched military bulldozers mangle her Nablus childhood home, then grind the parts down to dust and debris, and she told that story like it was nothing, because there was so much worse. She didn’t share those horrors with me often, but sometimes she tried. I never knew how to love her right in those moments.

Some days that winter, the blood felt contained, subtle, an afterthought. On those days we pretended nothing was wrong. Other days we’d wake to soaked bedsheets, color anything that hosted our lower bodies for more than a moment. I’d put a soft hand over my girlfriend’s because her face looked like she was ready to take some sort of action; I feared the moment when she’d try and fail. She felt protective, and responsible for getting me here—she came first, found a restaurant that would hire us both off books, asked me to join—so I knew she’d do anything. A willingness to do anything when nothing is possible can be dangerous. This was a country preoccupied with the notion of citizenship, a country in which health was costly and the cost of money high. I knew these things only from watching movies and the news, but my girlfriend had lived here before; she warned me that we would be on the wrong side of so much, on the wrong side of safety. I heard what she never said too: she was used to hardship, but I might crumble. My hand on her hand was saying I wasn’t crumbling. It was saying, “Let’s wait it out. The bleeding may still get better. It may one day pass.”

Despite the freezing cold, my girlfriend would spend stretches of time in the backyard asking the internet all our questions, because our phones were shit and hardly worked inside. Or our plan was shit, because we were broke, and reception was shit, because we had to leave the city when we quit our job; here in the boonies we could crash for free, but there weren’t many cell towers. (We’re not in the boonies, my girlfriend would say, half amused, half annoyed; there are houses on both sides of this house. My girlfriend often corrected me about terms people used in this country. Then what do you call it when there’s more trees than people and you can’t get online? I’d ask. A sign that you’ve taken some wrong turns, my girlfriend would say.) She’d come back to me with answers to random questions, with guesses as to what might be going on with our bodies, with tips for our situation. Meat! she declared once; balancing our hemoglobin levels is key. One thing I learned that winter is that everything I’d thought about blood was wrong. Bleeding is strength. A bleeding body is a strong body: it is unafraid to give itself to the earth. It is unafraid to grow frail. There is no greater strength than the lack of fear at the prospect of weakness.

Before that winter, I never considered myself strong. I considered my girlfriend strong, maybe the strongest person I’d ever met. And when, soon after I arrived in this country, things got tense at the restaurant where we worked because she and Ohad, the owner, openly disliked each other, I thought the tension could be explained by their shared exceptional strength; in my experience, remarkably strong people rarely got along. You don’t mean strong, you mean charismatic, Jasmin said when I tried to sell her on this theory. No no no, I said, mostly because the conversation suddenly felt like a trap; if I admitted I found Ohad charismatic, some questions might follow. It took me a while, likely longer than it should have, to face the real reason for this trouble: the attention Ohad was paying me.

When my girlfriend’s cousin—whose basement we were staying in—learned about our situation, he began checking on us every few days, though we all knew that really he was only checking up on Jasmin. He wouldn’t come in, always talked to us from the doorstep; I suspected he wanted to keep his distance from me. So when Jasmin was out getting his car oil changed and he knocked on our door, I assumed it was some kind of mix-up. But when I opened, he came in, sat down at the kitchen table—our basement was its own small apartment—and gestured for me to do the same. When he mentioned Ohad’s name my face must have lost some of its color, which had a yellow hue these days to begin with; he moved a glass of water that was on the table in my direction. When I did nothing he said Drink in a way that told me no matter how bad or frail I looked, we were having this conversation. Apparently, because we were hard to reach, Ohad had been writing to me and getting no response; he ended up tracking down and calling my girlfriend’s cousin, who, because he was smart and knew he should update me on this in private, was tasked with curating a situation in which my girlfriend would be absent. We sold sandwiches at a local shop in the mornings, but other than that we rarely left the house.

This Ohad is your boss, he said, yours and Sabrin’s? No one ever called my girlfriend Sabrin except her family. Yes, I said, former boss. He thinks you are carrying his child, he said. Yes, I said. He is married? he said, and I couldn’t tell if it was in fact another question, but I nodded. You must tell him, he said, and I was quiet, because I didn’t want to tell Ohad anything. I’d told him too much already. But I never said I was keeping the baby; that assumption was a choice he made. There’s a difference between lying to someone and letting them believe a lie. Does Sabrin know about this . . . connection? the cousin asked. Yes, I said. (And no, I thought.) Anyone in the history of people talking to each other who gave a straightforward answer to a loaded question was lying. Okay, he said, good. I looked at the floor to avoid his eyes because I didn’t agree that anything about this was good. I could feel him searching for my eyes. Finally he said, You know we can’t have trouble, yes? And here I looked up because he was our host and he was trying to make sure I wouldn’t put him at risk. I said, Of course. He said, This man, I know this kind of man. I understood what he meant: Ohad was someone used to getting his way in life. Whatever he needed that made him call, he wouldn’t go away until his need was satisfied.

What my girlfriend’s cousin meant by trouble was that he faced imprisonment or even death on the other side of the ocean; he could never risk giving someone like Ohad reason to make a call and report us. And while for me and my girlfriend, something like, say, a trip to the emergency room could end in a detention center, the real danger in that for us was losing each other. Back home, politics and our families and decades of conflict and oppression meant that we could never be together. I was the most likely to avoid deportation—I had the fair skin and better paperwork—and maybe that’s why I thought the loss of our love was the greatest danger, because I was advantaged not only in this way but also in terms of the reality that awaited me overseas. My girlfriend and I both repeated our line many times—our greatest risk was losing our relationship—but perhaps this was a half-truth. Perhaps she never wanted to name her misfortune or my privilege. Perhaps we both clung, each for her reasons, to this semblance of equality afforded us as foreigners in this country. In the kitchen, when my girlfriend’s cousin held my eye, he was forcing me to admit this half-truth. I understand, I said. I will talk to him. I looked at my feet. You can use the landline upstairs, he said. I felt my eyes welling up at this kindness, though it’s possible this was his way of making sure I called. Still, he was the only family member of my girlfriend’s who I’d ever met, maybe the only one I’d ever meet, and I felt in that moment that he was choosing to see me as his own blood instead of someone whose people oppressed his people. Thank you, I said, and heard the emotion in my own voice, which embarrassed me. Neither of us moved or said anything for a moment, and it suddenly occurred to me he might mean for us to head upstairs now. I’ll talk to Jas first, I said. He nodded but I still corrected myself. Sabrin.

When my girlfriend returned, she made some joke about her cousin babying his car—the last oil change hadn’t been too long ago—and when I said yeah she squinted her whole face at me, because my girlfriend’s intuition was her superpower. Something happen? she asked. I needed a minute—a day, a week, a lifetime—to think things through before we talked, but I wasn’t going to get that time. I felt scared, the kind of fear that alters your body temperature. My fear was: I’d mention Ohad’s name and my girlfriend’s blood would boil and she wouldn’t listen, wouldn’t hear me. My fear was: I’d mention Ohad’s name and my girlfriend would listen too well, would hear and see not so much what I was sharing, but what I was hiding. My fear was that my girlfriend would leave me.

You could say that I slept with my boss; in most ways that matter, you’d not be wrong. You could say that I flirted with him first—teased him, as he said that night, You’ve been teasing me for months, now suddenly you’re a deer in headlights?—and you could say that I let my attraction to him live in me and that at times it showed. It drove Jasmin mad, but she never confronted me. A cultural difference? I’d have yelled, thrown plates at the walls of our city apartment. But she did nothing; “you mean he’s charismatic” was as close as she got to a confrontation that whole time. You could say that I cheated on my girlfriend; you could say to me: whatever happened the night you got pregnant, whatever you claim Ohad did to you, you still cheated on Jasmin with him, several times, weeks before that night. You’d not be wrong, or not exactly wrong, by which I mean that’s what Jasmin would’ve said if she’d known everything. But all she knew was the night of the assault, not the nights that came before, and anyway I’d never dare say to her face that those nights hadn’t been sex, because that is some straight-people bullshit. One thing about lesbian sex is that it redefines pleasure, and in redefining pleasure, it robs you of the simplistic hetero line between touch and sex. So if you described the closeness during shifts—soft palm lingering on a shoulder, just making sure the other person heard that table five asked for their check; fingers touching fingers, just pointing to an appetizer’s code on a screen—and how those touches between Ohad and me intensified slowly but also fast, if you described how he shoved his tongue into my mouth one night and I nearly gagged, the smell of sardines in my nose and my butt pushed against the spare fridge in the back, and if you then described how I did the same to him the next night, pushed something into his face that you could call my tongue but I would call violence, and he let me, and he was soft with me then while I remained hard. If you described how I came that night, how Ohad made me come—or maybe it’s more accurate to say I used a man’s knee to make myself come and it just so happened his name was Ohad and he was my boss—if you described it, and how the smell of sardines felt different then, the way a strong orgasm can alter your sensory field. If you described all that a hundred times, if you yelled and screamed, if you looked at me with pain, disappointment, disgust—do you really imagine you’d be doing anything to me that I’ve not been doing to myself? What I’ve realized is that I don’t know how to measure betrayal. I meant for less of it and ended up with more. In men’s brains there’s a chronology of progression to touch; Ohad came to work that night—our first overlap since I rubbed myself against his knee—knowing what would happen at the end of the shift. And because there was no question in his mind, he asked me nothing. He pulled up my skirt, pulled down my panties, put himself into me, somehow all in one shocking motion. It didn’t feel like another body had entered mine; it felt like a brick was shoved into me and broke my insides. I don’t think I said no or stop; I didn’t say anything, I don’t think, and I didn’t move.

I shook him off of me in the end, after he was done. That moment haunts me, the motion my muscles proved capable of after all.

This was all on my face now, which I knew because I could see Jasmin’s angst, a particular kind of worry she’d developed for me in recent weeks. We were sitting on the bed but far enough from each other that she could lean in my direction and still not reach me. Hey, she said, her upper body bent toward me, her eyes trying to meet mine. Flashbacks? I nodded. He called, I said, and her face froze. Who called? she asked though she knew, and I didn’t want to say his name so I just waited. Why would he—she started to ask and I said, Jas, before we left the city I told him I was pregnant. I’m sorry I kept this from you. I felt very light, saying these nothing words, and I could feel my body wanting to leave my body, to levitate and watch these two women from above. Are they going to have the kind of fight that changes what they see when they look at each other? I moved to the edge of the bed so I could feel the floor under my feet. Jasmin was asking questions like When did this happen? and I told her the truth—when I went to get our last paychecks, which I was supposed to get from our friend a block away from the restaurant, but our friend was late. Or maybe I was early. Jasmin frowned at this. But how could I explain to her: back then my brain kept suggesting that in fact nothing bad had happened, that the way I described that night to Jasmin had been an exaggeration, a lie I told so my girlfriend wouldn’t say I cheated. What’s the big deal, to that girl, in going to the restaurant? If he’d be there, then he’d be there. And he was there, of course. His eyes widened at the sight of me at the door; immediately he gave a quick look around and signaled for me to follow him to the back. And I did. I followed him to that small room. I followed him although my legs started shaking, making their point that this was a bad idea. I think he asked why we quit and I made a face. He said something like She pissed? because what he thought had happened was that I told Jasmin he and I hooked up and she flipped. My life through his eyes was a whole other life. And maybe that’s why I needed to say that none of this was chill, to say You harmed me, to say Harm has consequences, motherfucker. So I said, Ohad, I’m pregnant.

On the bed now, I could see my girlfriend’s face working to accept my choices, to swallow her anger. I’m going to call from upstairs tomorrow, I said. You don’t owe him an update, she said, her jaw so clenched the air of her words was struggling to come out, you don’t owe him shit. It’s what your cousin wants me to do, I said, which was the truth but still felt like a lie. Fine, Jasmin said and got up, about to leave the room. I grabbed her hand. Jas, I said. I just need a minute, she said.

On the phone Ohad’s voice sounded familiar but warm, concerned, an uncle version of the man I knew. I didn’t focus on my feet; I didn’t will my body to stay in my body. It took me a while to tell him I was no longer pregnant and in that time I learned the reason for the call. The reason for the call was that Ohad wanted me to give him the child—instead of giving it up for adoption, which is what he believed I was doing. Is that crazy, he asked, am I crazy? He never waited for me to answer. He talked about his wife a lot—she was an activist, an environmentalist. I vaguely knew these things but said nothing; I’m not sure I even hmmed, but Ohad was never the kind of man who needed the sound of his own voice reinforced. Bringing a child into our ailing world, he explained, stood against everything his wife believed in—the surplus of human life was already in the billions, more than our planet could withstand, all that. But this, he said, this is different. This baby is already on its way. It’s my only chance at a biological child in this life. He actually thought I’d feel bad for him—I could hear the expectation in his voice. And maybe I did feel bad, guilty, even. I’ve known men like him my whole life; they believe so honestly in their entitlement, it’s near impossible to talk to them without believing it too. Eventually I couldn’t handle the sales pitch—he and his wife would take care of all expenses, set us back up in the city, Jasmin and I could be involved in the child’s life if we wished—and I said, There’s no baby, Ohad. The silence that followed felt explosive. I heard myself say I lost it and another silence followed. Then he began to cry.

When I came back down Jasmin was in the kitchen and everything smelled like fried onion and sumac. How’d it go? she asked with her back to me, cooking. Fine? I said. Tell me, she said. Her voice was cheerful. Everything felt wrong but I understood we were pretending this was no big deal and I wanted to contribute. Not much to tell, I said. Now he knows. I shrugged, though she couldn’t see. Took a while, though, my girlfriend said. I shrugged again. I got into the whole fake clinic story, I said, which was true—at the end of our call I told Ohad the story of how Jasmin and I made an appointment first with an abortion clinic that turned out to be a creepy anti-abortion center. They read to us from the bible and kept referring to us as friends no matter what we said. It probably took us longer than it should have to realize we were in the wrong place—across the street from the actual clinic, in a building that looked identical. I’d told Ohad this story like a funny anecdote. I mentioned their sign, which read “Plan Your Parenthood.” Why would you tell him that story? Jasmin asked, and she turned around then with such sharpness that she knocked a jar of olive oil off the counter. It shattered with a spectacular sound, the promise of tiny shards for weeks. I got up to help her clean but Jasmin’s arm stretched out to stop me, and I paused, still by the table. What’s the point of you getting in this mess, she said, but she didn’t move. We looked at each other. He was crying, I said. I didn’t know how to get him to stop crying. Also I accidentally said it was a miscarriage, sort of, and didn’t know how to correct myself. My girlfriend’s face asked if I was joking and my face said nope, totally serious. She shook her head, and now I couldn’t read her face; in a way, it was all so ridiculous and Jasmin often found absurdity hilarious. A part of me imagined she might laugh now, that we might laugh together. But she said, So you lied to him before you told him the truth. I said, Not exactly. I don’t think she heard me. She said, And that horrible place . . . we lost a crucial week thanks to them, we were both so upset. How’s that a joke? I said, We made it in time. I tried to smile. Yes, everything could have been much worse only a day later, the second trimester cutoff, but I was trying to remind Jasmin that didn’t happen. Not the point, she said. She looked at me and her eyes welled up; I walked into the puddle of oil and I didn’t slip and I hugged her and she let me.

About a week later, Jasmin pulled me to her one morning when I was barely awake. I remember this moment well, the careful sun in the window, the lavender smell of Jasmin’s skin, her eyes shining the way they did when she wanted me. But soon she froze, pulled her hand from inside me and I felt my confusion physically, acutely. You’ve stopped bleeding too, she said, and I realized she was right, I hadn’t bled in maybe a few days, but her tone and her face made me want to deny it. I hadn’t noticed but yeah, I said, I guess you’re right, and I sounded like I was lying though why would I? It’s so weird, Jasmin said, shaking her head gently, I haven’t bled since . . . last week. Okay, I said. Since he first called, she said. Okay, I said again. I don’t see the connection? I said. Yeah, she said and rolled onto her back. We lay there like that for some moments; I was looking at her and she was looking at the ceiling. Did he really assault you? she asked after a while. What? I said. A thousand needles poked my skin. She looked at me. I have to ask, she said. He did, I said. Okay, she said, okay. I’m sorry. We looked at each other and I know we both saw it, that fork in the road. One path was our future, as silly or sentimental as it might sound—I saw in that moment the future Jasmin and I could have, a future in which maybe the world was burning but we escaped all the fires together. It wasn’t the first time, though, she said, that night. I felt my eyes blinking more than they should. Right, I said. Right, she said, and her voice sounded different. You know I knew, right? she said, You must have known. I didn’t know, I said. She went back to looking at the ceiling. I feel like I’ve known from the start and also like I haven’t believed it until this moment, she said. Then she said, Or maybe until he called. We kept lying there for what seemed like a couple of years. I tried to speak many times—to explain, to apologize—but whenever my breathing changed, organized itself toward speech, Jasmin said, Don’t. Please don’t. Not now. I wanted to pee, wanted to get us both some water, but I was scared to leave the bed. I was guarding us somehow, guarding her state of mind. I’ve never lost it on you this whole time, she said, never showed you real anger. And I appreciate that, I said, which sounded both dumb and condescending. Jasmin gave a bitter chuckle. I’m saying . . . it’s a problem, she said. I didn’t know what to say. She sat up then, one sudden movement, and it made me dizzy. I sat up too. She said, I’ve been talking to someone. A . . . healer, sort of. A shaman, you could say, but Muslim. I asked, How? When? The least relevant questions, but my brain wanted the practical details in that moment—how Jasmin could hide conversations from me in these tight quarters we shared. Outside, she said, and I understood this to mean when she was out there in the cold getting online, or rather sometimes when I thought that’s what she was doing. My cousin wanted someone to help me, she said, he worried. I waited for more until she said, The shaman told me to watch the blood. He said I’d stop bleeding when my soul got strong enough. I couldn’t name what it was in her words that felt ominous. So we’re stronger now, I said, that’s good. Jasmin looked at me. You feel stronger? she asked. She didn’t say “strong enough to be on your own” but that’s what I saw in her eyes. I don’t know, I said, maybe not. She leaned over and kissed my forehead. Then she held my face. I could kill him with my bare hands for what he did to you she said, but who’s going to kill you for what you did to me? She let go of my face. I started to say those things are not the same but I stopped mid-sentence. I can’t force myself to forgive, Jasmin said, I think that’s what my body has been showing me. I said, I don’t see how the blood—but Jasmin interrupted. You keep thinking of us as one, she said, but we are two separate bodies. I wanted to ask if this was more wisdom from the shaman—I couldn’t bear this moment, couldn’t bear my own need—but I kept my words in my mouth. We are, I said instead. We are two separate bodies.

End of Part 1

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Shelly Oria is the author of New York 1, Tel Aviv 0 (FSG, 2014), a Lambda Literary Award Finalist. In 2017, a digital novella Oria was commissioned by McSweeney’s and WeTransfer to coauthor received two Lovie Awards from the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences and was downloaded by over 100k people. Oria is the editor of Indelible in the Hippocampus: Writings from the Me Too Movement (McSweeney’s, 2019), and I Know What’s Best for You: Stories on Reproductive Freedom (McSweeney’s, 2022). Her fiction has appeared in the Paris Review and on Selected Shorts at Symphony Space and has been translated to several languages.

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