Our Abortion Stories: Red Stain on a Yellow Dress

Editor’s note: On June 24, the Supreme Court overturned the longstanding precedents of Roe v. Wade, representing the largest blow to women’s constitutional rights in history. A series from Ms., Our Abortion Stories, chronicles readers’ experiences of abortion pre- and post-Roe. Abortions are sought by a wide range of people, for many different reasons. There is no single story. Telling stories of then and now shows how critical abortion has been and continues to be for women and girls. Share your abortion story by emailing myabortionstory@msmagazine.com, and sign our “We Have Had Abortions” petition.

In 2021, writer Julia MacDonnell published a collection, The Topography of Hidden Stories, which included a story particularly relevant at this historical moment. Recently, she described this story, “Red Stain on Yellow Dress,” as a “fictional meditation on what young women may have experienced in the epoch before the passage of Roe v. Wade” and added a warning that the story is “gritty and bloody, the way things used to be. Maybe you’ll weep when you read it, the way I did when I wrote it.”

(Burak Kebapci / Creative Commons)

“Tell me what you’ll be wearing, hon,” says the woman on the phone. “You know, so I can spot you right away.”

Serena, huddled in a phone booth outside Woolworth’s, shivers despite the August heat. Her fingers, clutching the black receiver, feel as though she’s shoved them into snow. She has trouble remembering her clothes. When she does, she eliminates most of them right away, her long skirts and her bell bottoms, her floppy hats and beads and feathers.

“Hurry up, honey,” the woman urges. “I can’t wait all day.”

“Yellow, a yellow dress,” blurts Serena, then hears herself describing one she’d sewn not long before as part of her plan to go hunting for a job as a receptionist or secretary. An A-line knit with cap sleeves and a jewel neckline.

“Bring cash, $600 in small bills, 10s and 20s,” the woman instructs.

“Sure,” whispers Serena.  She has about $400 rolled up in a nylon stocking in her room at Maggie’s Farm.

“Your first name?”

“Serena,” she answers, offering not her real name, but one she’s given to herself, one she likes much better than her own. Janine, or Janny, as her mother called her, a name that wouldn’t do at all for the life she planned to have.

“Now, Serena, when you get there, you just sit and wait. I’ll find you, okay?” says the woman. “You’ll know me when you see me. Red hair and sunglasses.”

On the day of Serena’s journey, Maggie’s Farm, a commune on a bend in the Connecticut River, is very quiet. The hippies and the Trotskyists have left for the Democratic National Convention in Chicago and the outside demonstrations, the Festival of Life. Alone for the first time in ages, feeling herself adrift in the unaccustomed silence, Serena sits on her bed, holding the yellow dress she herself has sewn. Through the small-paned window, stubbled cornfields stretch for acres out to the new interstate. Soon she’ll board a Greyhound that will carry her south along it.

Sitting in the dusty light, naked and still damp from her bath, Serena picks at the puckered seams of her dress, thinking about her mother, a seamstress who specialized in clothing for family celebrations. This time of year, August, when the First Communion, wedding and graduation rush was over, and the demand for holiday finery hadn’t yet begun, she sewed cocktail dresses for herself, spangled wonders with spaghetti straps and low-cut backs, planning to get her singing career back on track. Once Serena caught her, decked out in a shimmering lame number, lip-synching to Sinatra in front of the full-length mirror in her sewing room. I’ve got the world on a string…

Fingering the yellow knit’s plain bodice, Serena recalls her mother hand stitching intricate patterns of seed pearls, rhinestones, sequins on bodices and veils, her fingers dipping into the glistening cups of beads, her needles flashing. The first thing Serena herself had sewn was a pink cotton blouse with a Peter Pan collar. When she’d finished, she rushed off to show her mother, who examined the garment carefully, then tugged at the tiny stitches, tugged until the pieces of pink cotton came apart.

“Too weak to hold,” she said, handing the ruined blouse back to Serena.

Often, in this big house by the river, Serena imagines she’s back in her mother’s sewing room, amid falling scraps of fabric, with Frank Sinatra singing on the hi-fi above the humming clatter of the sewing machine. I’ve got a crush on you, sweetie pie. All the day and night time hear me sigh…

Before putting on her dress, Serena takes out her money, the $400 saved from modeling for life classes at the university, the other $200 borrowed from friends she will forget to pay back. She divides the cash into two equal piles, rolls the piles, wraps them in rubber bands and puts the rolls into her bra, one under each breast. When she crosses her arms under her chest, she feels the swollen lumps of cash.

By the time Serena gets off the Greyhound, after riding through the night, she is in the state of dreamy numbness she equates with higher consciousness. She has reached her destination, the nation’s capital, much too early, but it was the best connection she could make from western Massachusetts.

Following the instructions of the woman on the phone, Serena walks the length of the terminal—from her arrival gate to a bench facing the newsstand with a small American flag by the cash register. Through the nearest doorway is a shoeshine stand, not yet opened, and next to it, a blue mailbox, just as the woman had explained. Serena, as instructed, takes a seat on the bench, and tries to focus on the woman who will come for her, a woman with red hair and sunglasses. Red hair and sunglasses. Red hair and sunglasses.

As she had during the journey from Maggie’s Farm, Serena worries that the woman will fail to show up; that they will not connect; that she, Serena, will be left waiting in the bus station forever, her body swelling, her mind disintegrating, her life over. For days, in dreams, Serena has imagined this woman coming for her. Once the woman was her mother, young and vibrant, hardly older than she, Serena. Another time, it was she herself, Serena, who arrived, and the girl she rescued was a stranger, plump and pimply, alone on a terminal bench in the bus station of an unfamiliar city.

Twice during the night, Serena had thrown up, gagging over the bus’s stinking toilet. Waiting by the newsstand, Serena feels again the urge to puke, but is afraid to leave the bench, to go into the bathroom, in the case the woman comes. She whispers the Hail Mary, Blessed art thou among women, blessed is the fruit of thy womb. The nausea passes but a corrosive fluid bubbles in her throat.

Then the woman’s there beside her, sitting and whispering. Serena turns and looks, sees the red hair is a wig, stiff and shiny as a helmet. The sunglasses are cat’s eyes, with rhinestones at the comers, so dark she can’t even see the outline of the woman’s eyes. Her lipstick is blight red, applied in neat strokes beyond the edges of her lips.

“Serena,” she repeats.

Serena follows the redhead out of the terminal to a blue Valiant, parked at a meter several blocks away. The woman begins to drive around the city and Serena becomes bedazzled by its buildings, majestic columned edifices, the White House, Lincoln Memorial, Washington Monument. These great structures, which Serena is seeing for the first time, are glistening in the morning light, at once deeply familiar and unreal.

The woman drives and drives and Serena begins to think they’re going in circles, passing the same monuments, the same intersections. They drive until Serena emerges from her state of dreamy numbness and wants to scream or jump out of the car. Then the buildings start to change, growing darker, smaller, and at last, when Serena is no longer ready, the redhead pulls over. In front of them is a go-go bar with a flashing pink neon sign shaped like a bra. Next to the Valiant on Serena’s side, a flowered couch tilts between the sidewalk and the gutter. Dark stains streak its cushions. Serena, staring out the window, wonders if they’ve reached their destination; if the procedure is to be performed here, on the flowered couch, in front of the go-go bar with the flashing neon bra.

“Have the money?” asks the redhead. She lights up a Marlboro, pulled from a flip-top box. Serena nods yes, but has trouble reaching down the neckline of her dress to get it. Finally she manages by sliding low into the seat and undoing her back zipper. The woman ignores Serena’s wriggling. “You get what you pay for,” she says, rolling down her window, exhaling smoke through the crack.

“Warm,” she says when Serena hands her the two neat rolls of cash. The woman removes the rubber bands and flattens the bills out in her lap. She counts them twice, then puts them into her purse.

“Don’t be scared, hon,” the redhead says. She puts the Valiant into gear. “He’s a real doctor. He doesn’t make mistakes.”

Now the redhead leads Serena into the living room of a small apartment. Its blinds are drawn, but no lights have been turned on. Several other women sit in the twilight waiting. No one turns when Serena enters. A small fan rotates on a coffee table.

“How long will it take?” she asks the redhead, her voice insubstantial in the still air. The woman shrugs.

“It takes the time it takes. He’ll be as careful with you as he is with all the others.”

The woman disappears, but returns in a moment. She hands Serena a blue pill and a paper cup of water. Serena, overcoming another impulse to throw up, swallows the blue pill with tepid water. In a while, she re-enters her state of dreamy numbness, and a mist seems to surround her. The other women turn into shadows, and one by one they disappear. Serena keeps thinking she will hear something. Weeping. Maybe the gnashing of teeth. She listens carefully, lids lowered, ears straining. She hears nothing but the whir of the fan rotating on the table.

The procedure is performed in the kitchen, on a table that is draped with white. Soon Serena, too, is draped like a piece of furniture, her feet strapped to the tops of kitchen chairs placed backward at the table. Lying on the table, she can see, through the window over the sink, a scrap of blue sky and wisps of cloud. The doctor is bald and he wears bi-focals, a surgical mask, a short-sleeved seersucker shirt. He is huge, puffy, like a plastic creature someone has inflated. His hands are big and pink. Serena has trouble looking at him, trouble watching as the woman with the sunglasses helps him put on the surgical gloves.

“This will be a routine dilation and curettage, Serena,” he says, his words muffled by the mask. ”I’ll be opening you up and cleaning you out.”

He clears his throat, draws Serena’s attention to his instruments-the duck-billed speculum and the curette, a sharp-edged silver scoop. They glitter in his palms.

“It will only hurt for a minute,” he says. “Then you can leave here and go on with your life.”

The doctor puts the fingers of one hand into Serena, probes the unripe fruit of her womb. With his other, he presses her belly on the outside. He nods, making throaty noises. “You’re farther gone than you said,” he says. “All you damned girls lie. Why?”

He does not seem to want an answer and Serena does not give him one. The woman in the sunglasses stands in the doorway watching.

It will only hurt for a minute,” he says. “Then you can leave here and go on with your life.”

Now the doctor disappears into the white-draped space between Serena’s knees. The speculum is cold and it squeaks as he cranks it open. He gives Serena no anesthesia but she is numb there anyway. Pain gathers elsewhere, shivering in her hips and ribs, skittering through her arms and shoulders, encircling in her throat.

Serena hears the clanking of the instruments and the low voice of the doctor telling her what he is doing, a voice she doesn’t want to hear. She does not want to know what he is doing, but she cannot seem to tell him. She cannot speak. Then she sees her mother’s sewing room, the furniture and floor draped with clean white sheets to protect the fragile fabrics she fashions into gowns. She sees her mother surrounded by lengths of these fabrics: satin, tulle, taffeta, shantung; her mother, a hard bright thing, a stone, in this rainbow of luscious color; her mother, so small, hunched behind the big machine that she seemed always to be hiding. Her mother, humming along with Sinatra instead of singing words. The summer wind came blowing in from across the sea…

With the doctor hidden in the tent between her legs, Serena remembers how she used to hide under the sewing table; how, if her mother were working on a wedding gown, a ball gown, she’d drape the fabric so it felt like water to the ground and Serena, under the table, would be sealed into a shadowy world of translucent fabric. As the doctor works, and pain tightens like a drawstring around Serena’s throat, she recalls her mother’s scrap bag, the sack into which she dropped leftover fabric, all the pieces that didn’t fit but were too good to throwaway. Velvets, cottons, brocades in many prints and colors. Serena, hiding in her tent under the table, would pick through this sack, looking for pretty bits and pieces, making patchworks on the floor.

Serena tries imagining a design of shimmering pastels, but the patchwork will not come together. Instead Serena sees her mother, sees her mother watching, hunched behind the big machine, yet watching, her busy fingers working, her eyes as beautiful and empty as the jewels she sewed on other women’s gowns.

“It’s over, you’re done,” the doctor announces, his masked face rising like a moon above the mountain of Serena’s knees. She is drenched with perspiration. Her arms and legs quiver as though the doctor had severed some essential bit of wiring when he’d cleaned her out. She cannot catch her breath.

“It’s nothing, see,” the doctor says, suddenly standing very close, holding out a steel pan, tipping it toward her. “See, it’s just a bunch of cells.”

Serena looks away but not before she’s glimpsed the puddled blood and clotted tissue shining in the silver pan. The woman in the sunglasses comes and takes it. A moment later, Serena hears a toilet flush.

Serena is still vibrating when the woman tells her to get up and put on her shoes. “You’re fine, you’ll be fine,” the woman repeats as she drives Serena back to the bus station. The trip is shorter this time. They do not go in circles, but instead head straight toward the terminal. Serena sees the sleek dog painted on its brick side, body outstretched, face and limbs straining in its race. Serena is wondering where the dog is headed when the woman pulls up at the curb and tells her to get out.

“You’re fine, you’ll be fine,” she says again. “You should stop bleeding in about a week.”

Serena finds her way back into the terminal. She realizes she’s starving, and still shaking with the strange palsy. She searches through her purse for change, finds enough for a candy bar. She buys a Milky Way, eats it in one swallow. Then she has to pee, a need that announces itself as painfully as her sudden hunger. She rushes into the ladies room. All the stalls are locked with coin boxes. She is standing there transfixed when a woman’s voice turns her around.

“Girl, look there. You gotta blood stain on your skirt.”

A matron in a blue uniform is pointing at the back of Serena’s dress-.

Serena twists, looking backward, reaching for her hemline. The matron takes hold of the skirt, tugs it forward, until Serena herself can read the Rorschach.

“You got something to change into? Or at least a pad? You got a pad, girl?”

Serena looks at her. The matron shakes her head, puts some coins into a box over the sink and hands Serena two sanitary napkins.

“Go clean yourself up,” she commands, using her key to open one of the stalls. Serena obeys, her legs and fingers twitching. Still she cannot speak.

When Serena finishes in the toilet, the matron tries to help her wash the stain out in the sink. Serena stands close to hcr, half-backward to the sink, watching pink watcr splash through the yellow knit into the white porcelain of the sink. The outline of the stain remains, red as Hester’s letter.

“Got yourself into some mess, huh, girl?” the matron says, wringing out the skirt, rubbing it with paper towels.

“It’s just my period,” Serena lies.

“Uh-huh,” the matron answers.

They look at one another in the mirror, but Serena sees herself somewhere far beyond them: in a room by the river, hidden in a silky tent, the fragile fabric billowing around her. Again, Serena wonders what her mother would have told her if she’d been inclined to speak. But she cannot imagine. Because her mother hadn’t been inclined to speak, only to keep her fingers moving, her silver needles flashing, while she hummed along with Sinatra singing on the stereo.

During the night, on the way back, the Greyhound’s ventilated air blows like a mistral around Serena, chilling her while she sleeps. It gusts against the windows, whistles up from vents around the floor, slips through the crevices between the seats. Serena dreams that she is lost in a coastal storm; that everything she cares about has blown away. She wakes up chattering and shuddering. She wonders what it was she’d cared about, but no clear images stayed with her from the dream.

The bus is almost empty and she is sitting near the front. A transistor radio is attached with duct tape to the dashboard. The driver is listening to the news. Hundreds of protesters arrested outside the convention in Chicago, then hauled off to jail.

“Want my jacket, doll?” the driver asks her. “I can’t do anything about that air.”

Serena doesn’t answer him. She doesn’t acknowledge that he has spoken to her. He pulls into the next rest stop and brings her his jacket anyway. She does not thank him, but he does not seem to mind. Once the bus is underway, she curls up inside the jacket, its lining cold and slippery as water. It smells of tobacco and sweat. Serena draws up her legs, pulling them under the jacket. She feels blood spurt onto the Kotex and hopes the pad will hold. The jacket’s lining warms against her skin, and Serena pulls it closer.

The humming of the Greyhound lulls Serena, but she does not go back to sleep. Nor does she listen to the news of rioting at the Democratic National Convention. Instead, through the Greyhound’s wide windshield, glistening with reflected light, she watches the red taillights of the vehicles in front of them; the headlights of those traveling in the opposite direction. The passing landscape is blackened, lightless, as if they’re boring through a tunnel, hundreds of miles long.

Serena’s going back to Maggie’s Farm but not for long. Where, after that, she doesn’t know, but it does not seem to matter. Because she knows now that it is over. Soon she will stop bleeding. She can go on with her life.

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Julia MacDonnell has published two novels, a story collection, and countless articles, essays and book reviews. She developed her quirky vision and questioning voice over a lifetime of creative exploration. The second oldest of eight children in a Scotch-Irish Catholic family, she broke away early, rebelling against her family’s rigidity and pious prayerfulness. Familial relationships have remained an abiding concern throughout MacDonnell’s writing life.