Merilee’s Choice

“I’m in a real panic. None of the hands I am dealing will work. The winning combination is eluding me.”

October 16, 2014

Of the two pieces of short fiction that were published in Nuance, an anthology of Women and Words Winnipeg members, Merilee’s Choice also found a home in Dreams & Tricksters, my collection of interlinked short stories set in a dilapidated apartment building in downtown Winnipeg.
The short stories delve into the apartment dwellers’ lives which are often challenging.

This is the short story:

Women and Words Winnipeg anthology,
Lilith Publications Inc., 1985
Merilee’s Choice

Betsy and I are in the habit of watching our favourite soap opera together. We watch it on my T.V. Betsy hocked hers at a pawn shop on Ellice because she needed money to buy her youngest some clothes for school.

But one Friday, Betsy doesn’t show up. I can’t understand it because Fridays are the best days on the soap. It provides us with a dose of comic relief, much needed with me sick of my post-grad studies and her nervous about the possibility of being cut off welfare.

When the Mr. Clean ad comes on, I rush down the hall to her apartment, hesitate, glance at her name tag — Betsy Courchene — and give it a quick tap. She meets me at the door, pushes me back as I try to move forward and joins me in the hall, clicking the door shut behind her.

“What’s going on? Why are we standing here in the hall? Why don’t you come over?”

“It’s Merilee. She’s in trouble. She’s in there crying.”

Merilee is Petey’s current girlfriend. Petey is Betsy’s 15-year-old son. I don’t know wither of the kids very well. Petey spends little time at his mother’s place, especially when he’s with Merilee. They come when she is out and leave when Betsy is in.

Once in a while I pass them in the hallway. Petey’s arm is draped around Merilee’s shoulder or his hand clutches the back of her neck as if she might escape if he lets go. They never look at me but giggle when I go by. We share the same planet but travel in different circles, light-years apart. Separated by a 14-year age gap.

“Is there anything I can do?”

“No,” Betsy says absently, her thoughts back in her living room.

“You sure?”

Betsy stares at me as if she is really seeing me for the first time. “Well, maybe. Yeah. I’ll come over and talk after supper.”

Then she pivots around following her thoughts back inside the apartment.

I’m in a real panic. None of the hands I am dealing will work. The winnineg combination is eluding me. Once again, I shuffle through the note cards trying to pick out the beginning, middle and end to what has to turn into a major anthropology paper for my Women’s Studies Program.

My thesis deals with cross-cultural attitudes towards abortion. I’ve done my research; tons of reading, I’ve seen Abortion: Stories from North and South, and have even interviewed filmmaker Gail Singer about it. But I’m failing to fully grasp this issue from a feminist perspective. I’m a failure as a feminist. Has anyone failed at being a feminist before?

The door flies open, hitting the back of my chair. It’s Betsy. One look at her makes me drop my mind games and note cards. She’s a mess. Her usually neatly-plaited braids look scraggly and over the skin suctioned to her high cheekbones protrude desperate dark brown eyes.

This is another side to the Betsy I have come to know. I feel I must be careful and ask if she wants some tea.

“Yeah,” she sighs and crumples into the couch.

I make the tea and hand her a cup like an offering. She sips and then starts pouring out her agony. “You know, most of my life, I’ve had to fight to keep my babies,” Betsy begins. I imagine her sorting through the photographs in her mind. Snapshots of each time her ex-husband, a social worker or a police offier has tried to take her children. “And now I’m thinking of doing away with a baby who isn’t even born yet.”

“Betsy, are you pregnant?” Despite her three kids, I find it difficult to think of her taut body swelling big with fetus.

“No,” she laughs bitterly. “God, no. The doctor tied my tubes after Rosalind was born. He had me under the knife almost before I recovered from birthing her. He said, ‘Now, Betsy, you’re on welfare. You can’t afford another baby’. Disgust twists her face and her fingers grab a braid. She looks like she wants to pull it out by the roots. She is turning her fighting spirit in on herself.

I look at the note cards scattered over my card table. I want to help but my paper has a deadline that’s coming up soon.

“So, what’s wrong?”

“Merilee’s pregnant. Petey went and got her pregnant. Stupid kids.” Yet she says it with affection.

“Oh no. And she’s so young. I’m sorry, Betsy.” In my mind, I see Petey and Merilee laughing, making fun of me and everyone else in the world. They are playing against the rules adult society sets up and they’ve lost their first round.

“Yeah, but she knows what she wants and it isn’t no baby. She says she’s too young and wants to go to university some day and so she has to get rid of the baby. So I said, ‘So what are you crying for?’ And she says because she wished she was older so she could have the baby.”

“But, it’s no a baby that she’s getting rid of,’ I note expertly, “It’s a fetus.”

“Tyeanne, is that what you white feminists call it?”

Her words stab me like a knife sending a sharp pain through my abdomen.

I recall my Indian friends on the reserve where my mother taught school when I was young. “Pale face, pale face,” they taunted when they grew tired of me. “Something pale running between your legs.”

“Red face, red face,” I shot back at the boy who led the others in humiliating me. “Something red running between your legs. Just like a girl.”

I am ashamed. I look up and see Betsy is too. She raises her hand to wave away the smoke trailing from her cigarette. It’s not asking forgiveness. It’s like signal to forget the whole thing.

“But it’s Merilee’s choice.” I know I am right about this, at least.

“I know,” she says softly. “I know. I told her I would take the baby. She looked around my apartment like my worker. She may as well have been my doctor telling me I was on welfare and couldn’t afford any more kids.”

“They say kids are honest,” I reply. “But I don’t know if they’re honest or just cruel without realizing it.”

“Everything is so wrong with this,” Betsy continues. “When I was young, I used to spend my summers with my grandmother up north on my father’s reserve. One summer, I remember this girl coming and asking the woman to give her something to bring on her period.

“The old woman heated some herbs on a fire outside the tent we camped in during the summers. The girl drank the brew. Then we sat near her through the cramps until she let go of the life inside her and the blood came.

“My grandmother wrapped it in a potato sack. But I saw it first. To me, it looked like the baby rabbit I once had as a pet. I said ‘Granny, its looks like Peter’. That was my rabbit’s name. She said, ‘You are right, little one. It is life and that is why I will return it to our mother earth. She will take care of it until it is ready to come back and live’. She went into the bush behind the tent, dug a hole with a shovel and buried it.”

“A wise woman,” I say.

“Yes, much wiser than her granddaughter. She died last winter. Froze to death on her trapline. And I never thought to ask her about the herbs she used. Now, it’s too late.”

“But you know what she would say.”

“Yeah, I know. That’s why I came to you, Tyeanne. You know about these things. Merilee wants an abortion. She wants it soon. Where do we go?”

I phone a nurse who has worked at the Morgentaler clinic. We set an appointment.

“Tell her not to worry,” the nurse says. “It’s a simple, medical procedure.”

To read the first posts in this blog, please go to
Facebook. LinkedIn. Twitter. Google.
Confessions of a Tea Leaf Reader by Tanya Lester can be purchased from the author or go to the title and author name– to read the first few pages and buy it — at
Tanya Lester’s other books are
Dreams & Tricksters, Friends I Never Knew and Women’s Rights/Writes.


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