Not Compost

In the hospital, I have a roommate who snores.


n the hospital, I have a roommate who snores. The woman wheezes through her nose day and night. A candy striper pours golden apple juice into a cup for my roommate, but it just sits there on a tray. I’m so thirsty, not for apple juice or the liquid protein they force me to drink, I am thirsty for a whiskey sour. When I fantasize about biting into a whiskey-soaked maraschino cherry, I think about sin. I wonder if the busy nurses notice the sins on my face, hidden in every blister. When I press the call button with my good thumb, the nurses ignore me, and I know they do this on purpose because I’m a pest. I used to work as a nurse just like them in a clinic, and I made the pesty ones wait. Press, press, press the button. I have a simple request to refill my pain meds, but a whiskey sour would do. I’d make my own if I could.


Prep: 3 mins

Cook: 0 mins

Shake: 1 min

Serving: 1 serving

Yield: 1 cocktail

If my roommate wakes up, I’ll tell her all about the Wellfleet Women’s Clinic where I worked years ago. I don’t look like I used to be anyone important with bandages all over my body and the stubs of my amputated fingers sticking out. But I was known as a competent nurse who was kind to the women who came to us with all kinds of female ailments. Women who thought they were in menopause, but got pregnant anyway. Spinsters who swore they never had sex. Middle-aged mommies who strayed from their families. And I will never forget 13 year old Gina Doane with enormous unruly breasts that made men whistle and she barely knew why they did that.

Gina was:



Cracked a hymen

Popped a cherry

The male gynecologist (we called him Dr. Gynie behind his back) made awful jokes when the young ones were groggy and he thought they couldn’t hear.

Knocked up


With child

Bun in the Oven


Up the duff

Back in the olden days with Dr. Gynie, the patient was supposed to lie down on the examining table on top of the crinkly white paper and anchor her feet in the cold metal stirrups. This was when they spread their legs for a speculum instead of fielding a bouncing boyfriend. This was the moment when the young ones usually started to cry.

It is difficult to know how many abortions were performed pre-Roe v. Wade, but according to Lynn Paltrow, Executive Director of NAPW-National Advocates for Pregnant Women, approximately 862,000 illegal abortions were performed every year.

— Ms. Magazine

This was the moment when the young ones usually started to cry.

Patient #767,001


Gina Doane

13 years old

Sweet Gina hardly made the connection between menstrual blood and sex. Every spring, Gina changed her Barbie Doll from a white rabbit fur coat to a skimpy bikini, so excited for beach days when she just might talk to a boy. But everything below the waist was a confusing cauldron of excitement that got her in big trouble when the French kissing went wild. “It felt good. But he was done so fast. We were just making out. Sort of.”

I keep pressing the button, but the nurses don’t come. And now that I’m reminded of Dr. Gynie and the nasty things he said, I think about maraschino cherries and their color. A strange red and different from the red of blood. My neighbor told me she dumped some in her compost last August, and even after a long winter, by April, they were the same. Plump and bright red after they’d been buried in garbage. Maraschino cherries? Not compost.

I pile up compost every year so my garden will be as fertile as possible. Sometimes I smoke when I garden. Sometimes I smoke when I watch TV in bed.

How many times in my life was I told that smoking in bed was a no-no? I often scolded my own patients to never lie down on your back and smoke. But after a long day’s work and nobody to share a bed with, I snuggled up under my big fluffy quilt to smoke and watch TV. The real culprit was the 11 o’clock weather report that lulled me to sleep as I smoked. Partly cloudy tomorrow, unseasonable temperatures tomorrow, and tomorrow and tomorrow. Every night the blockhead weatherman from Boston droned on and on about projected temperatures, humidity indexes and possible snow, so of course, I fell asleep with a cigarette between my fingers.

The pretty red nail polish from my last manicure is still on my thumb, and I can’t bear to think of what the surgeon did with the amputated parts of myself. Not compost.

Patient #72


Hyannis Hospital

Daydreaming—me in the burn unit

52 years old

I was an experienced nurse who made gentle suggestions to a younger nurse about how to do a better job when assisting with abortions. Build a tiny trap door in your mind that you slam shut when you start thinking about what should be done with sensitive medical waste.

Focus on the shaky thighs and sterilized tools, and never ever think about life or death or little beating hearts or the blood. Hearts way smaller than an eraser head. Teeny tiny thumbs smaller than her shortest eyelash. Not compost.

“Prior to the abortion, most participants did not give consideration to disposal methods because their focus was on ending the pregnancy. Appropriate disposal by health professionals was assumed but some women undergoing early medical abortion reported anxiety about how to manage disposal at home.

The term 'sensitive disposal' was unfamiliar to most respondents. Participants generally favored separation of fetal tissue from other clinical waste and approved of incineration as a means of destruction.”

— NIH National Library of Medicine

The nurse in the burn unit is stingy with painkillers and she probably never made a whiskey sour in her life. When she took my blood pressure for the umpteenth time, I managed to get it out of her that she grew up on the Cape and was born in this very hospital. She says she works double shifts for extra money, and it looks like she never left the building for all 53 years of her life. She’s very pale and kind of grey in the cheeks. Grey hair. Grey like the sky today. Could easily pass for a cloud. She presses her lips together like everything annoys her, which makes me afraid to ask her to give me something more for relief. No refill of Oxycodone and no whiskey sours from her, that’s for sure.

She’s very pale and kind of gray in the cheeks. Gray hair. Gray like the sky today. Could easily pass for a cloud.

Sometimes I make whiskey sours at home just for me, and then I propose a toast to a better world with my cat, who keeps me company. First, I lay out all the ingredients and make sure my shaker is very clean. No dust. My cat hangs out on top of the kitchen counter to watch me mix and shake.

  • 2 ounces whiskey and a splash extra of rum
  • 1 ounce lemon juice
  • ¾ ounce simple syrup
  • 1 egg white
  • Remove: a cat hair
  • Garnish: brandy-soaked maraschino cherry
  • Seasoning: Angostura bitters (to taste), or lemon peel
  • Remove: another cat hair

My grandmother, Dorothea drank sherry and never whiskey sours.

Patient #3,043


NYC apartment

Dorothea O’Fakelastname

16 years old

Doro-thea means Gift-of-God. In 1923 when she was 16 years old, she got pregnant. Arthur Brothers, a very married NYC lawyer, would have nothing to do with the pregnancy. He dumped the 16 year old Dorothea after he dumped his sperm on her egg. A gift. Arthur Brothers is long dead, and yes, that was his real name, and I name him because the fertilized egg from his fling turned out to be my mother. Back then, Dorothea and all the people around her had a convoluted pact with the patriarchy to not name him and make it her shame, and not his responsibility. So I name him in his grave. Not compost.

Dot had the baby in 1924 and raised my mother, suffocating in the shame of being unwed. In 1936 single mother Dot got pregnant again, and this time she had a secret abortion. The abortionist referred to the fetus as Mousie, and my mother remembers helping her mother carry Mousie in a paper bag on a train back to the abortionist. She said something about being instructed not to put the bag in the regular trash, and don’t bury it in the woods, or dump it in the Hudson River because it might wash up on shore. She agreed to bring it back to the abortionist. What did he do with it? Not compost.

June 27, 1936 abortion became illegal in the Soviet Union after being legal since the 1920s. The number of officially recorded abortions dropped sharply from 1.9 million in 1935 to 570,000 in 1937. The number of illegal abortions in the U.S. was unknown.

The number of reported abortions in 1976 in the U.S. was 1,115,000.

— Guttmacher Institute

Patient #267,022


Boston Planned Parenthood


26 years old

The granddaughter of Dorothea had an abortion at Planned Parenthood of Boston in a safe, clean environment. I had a vacuum aspiration procedure, which went more smoothly than a root canal.

I was okay with it for years, or so I thought. But after my third child was born (14 years later), I started having dreams about the abortion. I would wake up with bloody spots on my scalp because in my dream, Jesus made me wear a crown with pointy thorns, and so in my sleep, I tried to dig out the splinters from my scalp. This dream would come and go. I had a lot of “what if” conversations with a voice stuck in my ear—a little buzzing fly that kept annoying me with questions, tickling my inner ear over and over. The fly’s name was Tiny Mary and she asked me,

What if you had that babyzzz instead of an abortionzzz?

You know, it was just a one-nighter with that guy that yielded a Mousie, and I would have had to drop out of grad school, and I would never have had my three children who are with me now.

Who sayszzz?

I was young and pregnant from a casual fling and didn’t consider having the baby. At six weeks pregnant, the fetus was not viable outside the womb. I was the boss of my body. But I always wondered, what did they do with the-my-the-my-the-my-the-my fetus?

Not compost.

Patient #72


Hyannis Hospital

Me, still in the burn unit

52 years old

Smack in the middle of watching the hospital TV on the wall, a faint buzzing sound gets louder as a fly zooms over and lands on my ear, and then hops back to the TV, and then back to my bed. I think it’s Tiny Mary again.

I have an announcement Ladiezzzzzz.

The fly jumps from my clavicle closer to my ear.

It’s mezzzz.


Listen up, Ladiezzzzz. You shouldn’t be so precious about hatching babies. I lay my eggs in your garbage, sometimes 2,000 eggs a month. You have some nerve saying mean things about my maggot babies who are kind enough to eat your leftovers and dead bodies. Mother Nature must have been asleep at the wheel when she invented nine months of pregnancy for humans. Ladiezzzz, your cumbersome long gestation period is very inefficient, so it’s about time you switch to artificial wombs. Researchers at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia have invented artificial wombs for fetal lambs. Faux wombs. They successfully created an amniotic fluid environment that resulted in normal lung maturation and brain growth in the first trimester.

What do they do with the faux amniotic fluid and the blood from faux wombs after the baby is born?

Not compost.

My roommate is still asleep. She has dentures in a glass of water next to her hospital bed, sitting near the cup of apple juice. What did the dentist do with her old rotten teeth?

Not compost.

My snoring roommate is the result of 4 million sperm dispersed from a man up the vagina of her mother. And only one sperm swam all the way to the egg, beating the mob of other sperm. Bull’s eye. The yield? My roommate.

Does my roommate garden? If she does, I would ask her if she puts ashes on her budding peony beds to fertilize them in the beginning of spring when the shoots first pop out of the ground. Bone ash is good for flowers, and if I knew her better, I would tell her that once I sprinkled some of my grandmother’s ashes on the flowerbed because she loved peonies. But my roommate might be Catholic, and I bet she’d say it was a sin to do that. She surely would say it was a sin to be an abortion doctor’s assistant. But I would tell her the notion of sin is up for grabs. I would ask her if it’s a sin to kill a cow and grind up the flesh into bloody meat patties and eat them? Does she eat hamburgers? What does she do with her leftovers? Compost or garbage? What does the slaughterhouse do with the leftovers from the dead cow?

Bone ash is good for flowers, and if I knew her better, I would tell her that once I sprinkled some of my grandmother’s ashes on the flowerbed because she loved peonies.

Not compost.

Human ash is lightweight like powdered sugar, and I know this from my grandmother’s ashes in the garden, so what does the crematorium do with the leftover ash when they can’t possibly scrape it all into a cremation urn?

Not compost.

My roommate’s rotten teeth, my amputated fingertips, somebody’s amniotic fluid, somebody’s fertilized egg, what became of those clusters of molecules?

Not compost.

Now that I’m more awake and not too stoned on pain meds, I think about the molecules in my teeth and the molecules in her dentures. What else is there to do in the hospital but think about these things? They say biting with dentures is risky because they could fall out if you bite in a zigzag. In the order of things disintegrating in the universe, my teeth will decompose and then the plastic dentures and then the maraschino cherry or is it the other way around? How long? And since matter is neither created nor destroyed, so they say, where will the essence of my teeth and the dentures and the cherry go? I run my tongue back and forth across my teeth, glad that I still have them.

About the author

Judith Stiles writes a monthly column for the Italian publication,, about all things American. She earns her living as a potter. Her essays have been in Europa Quotidiano, ZibbyMag, Ernest Hemingway Shorts, and the New York Times. She is completing her novel, “Who Dropped Baby” about abortion and fire.