a short story
The door clicked shut behind him. He took a deep breath as he ran his thumb over the cold, sharp edges of the key. He knew the gravity of what he was doing; he understood the significance of this decision. It weighed on him near the point of paralysis, even now, with his mind made up. He paused, leaning against the doorframe, and let his mind run through it all one last time.
They’d met on a Sunday; she talked animatedly amongst of group of friends. He stood on the outskirts of all the conversation, picking at the edges of his now empty paper coffee cup, wondering what he was doing there. The occasional friendly stranger interrupted his thoughts to welcome him to the church and get to know him. Classic church behavior he’d thought, and though he hated small talk, he’d openly shared with each of them some version of his life not quite the truth.
He told them honestly about moving here from up north, that he was looking forward to the unique nature that seemed attached to southern life, that he was working at a bike shop downtown, and that he made handcrafted furniture in his spare time. What he held back were all the important things, all the things that made up his identity. He didn’t tell them about his younger brother dying in a car accident almost a year ago; he didn’t tell them about how that unexpected death had completely destroyed his entire family. He never mentioned the way a never-ending river deep with pain and anger had filled the hole in his chest where his brother had once been. He didn’t talk about the way he’d desperately needed a fresh start, a new life far away from everything he’d once known, after waking up next to a young girl, a junkie, who had overdosed on cocaine while they were partying the night before. He kept the truth to himself, the way, since his brother’s death, he’d spiraled into a dark depression, one he’d felt could only be remedied with drugs. He didn’t tell any of these strangers that he’d been certain the only way to feel numb to the pain of losing his best friend was to make himself numb to everything, or that the only reason he hadn’t gone to prison after that girl died was because his lawyer father was friends with the judge and had gotten him a rehab mandatory deal instead. No, he knew better than to tell any of these church people that story; and the more he thought about it, the less he liked the idea of being there in general.
During the past three months in rehab, he’d been forced to attend weekly religious exercises as a method of treatment. Now, out of rehab, he was terrified of relapsing, and as a result, found himself voluntarily taking part in many of the ridiculous methods of treatment he’d scoffed at only weeks ago; today, that apparently included forcing himself into a room of strangers that he assumed were silently judging him.
The people in the lobby all began filtering in the doors to the chapel, the buzz of conversation slowed, and the sound of contemporary Christian worship filled the air. He was making his way for the exit, decidedly against the whole idea of attending church now that it wasn’t required, when she grabbed him by the arm.
She stopped him dead in his tracks, twisting his arm in every direction; she ran her hand across his forearm, pushing up the sleeve of his jacket to reveal more of the intricate design tattooed on his skin, what she would guess was an entire sleeve, up to his shoulder. She held his hand in her own as her eyes explored the ink stretching across his body.
“This is really beautiful,” she said, a candor to her tone that put him at ease. “Tell me about it. What’s it all mean?” she laced her fingers through his own, pulling him into the chapel as he talked.
“It started out with just the tree in the middle; my brother and I got them the day he turned 18. Then for the next few years, for both our birthdays, we’d add on to it, sort of a tradition,” he explained, as they now stood in an aisle amidst what he assumed were her friends.
“What’s this part mean?” she asked; as she ran her finger along a line of Latin, electricity ran through him.
“Oh, that part I just added, when I got out of rehab,” he shifted a little, uncomfortably pulling his sleeve down a bit, hesitant to continue. “It’s Latin for ‘remember to keep a clear head in difficult times.’ My brother died about a year ago,” he said, pointing to a section of Roman numerals listing out the specific date etched above his wrist, “and after that, I went through a really dark time; I was pretty messed up, and so I guess I just needed the reminder, you know, to keep calm even when things are bad.”
The music was fading out; the voices around them were quiet. He sat down, following her lead; she flashed him a smile and dug through an enormous bag in search of her Bible.
As the service started, his mind began to wander. He couldn’t believe he’d just told this random girl all of that; he’d specifically planned not to tell anyone here about his past. He was deep in thought when her Bible landed in his view, she traced along the words being read by the pastor with a chipped black nail, and as he followed her finger more than the words themselves, he noticed her hands were a canvas of tiny little drawings themselves. He pulled both her hands into his, flipping them over and holding them up for closer inspection; almost every single finger was adorned with some drawing or word. He looked at her with a raised eyebrow as if to question their significance now too; she shrugged, flashing him that same smile, nonchalant with an hint of mystery hiding inside of it.
The service ended and the scene afterwards nearly mirrored that in the lobby before. He hung back, tiptoeing along the surface of the social bubble existing around him, but this time, he couldn’t keep his eyes off of her. She was effortlessly likable, casual and cool, with the easy ability to go from twirling around the lobby with a group of toddlers, to talking passionately with the pastor and his wife about the refugee crisis in Syria, without missing a beat. She was different from anything he’d expected to find; she didn’t fit the stereotype he associated with church: poised, polished, always in control, never showing weakness. Instead, she seemed to show every weakness, to act with a vulnerable honestly he’d never before encountered while also carrying herself with some sort of deep, inexplicable edge. She shared her every fault openly with the world, but somehow, she seemed stronger because of it; there was a boldness to her every act, an obvious voracity for life in each step she took, and that drew him to her. He was undeniably fixated.
She walked out with him; they had coffee, and talked at length about every subject imaginable.
“I don’t really know; they all just represent little experiences or interests in my life. I read somewhere once that people with lots of tattoos or piercings are actually people more inclined to depression and self-harm and tattoos and piercings are just a way of releasing that pain,” she said, explaining the tattoos of her own. “I don’t know if it’s true, but it’s interesting to think about.”
She sipped her hot, black, Americano and thought about the interesting mix and angst and optimism in his eyes.
Their conversation flowed easily from subject to subject; she couldn’t think of a guy she’d ever had this much fun with right away.
“You’ve never seen Star Wars?” he asked, incredulously, as they discussed favorite movies. “And here I thought I’d found the perfect girl.” He shook his head and smiled.
He walked her home. They became fast friends; and before long, they became more than friends.
She’d never felt such an instant connection with someone, and that connection had not once let up at all. They’d known each other for almost six months; they’d been dating a little over three of that. Every time she thought about him, she smiled. She’d never been in love before, she’d guarded her heart so closely for so long, but now, it seemed, she was absolutely in love with him.
She knew they came from two different pasts; that had been obvious from the day they met, and yet it felt as if they were two sides of the same person. It didn’t matter that he had a police record while she’d never even gotten a speeding ticket. It didn’t matter that while he’d gone to rehab for drug addiction, she’d gone to Africa to do mission work. She felt so close to him, and she wanted to feel closer.
Deciding to have sex was a big step for both of them. The last girl he’d hooked up with had been high out of her mind and had died next to him while he slept in a drug induced haze. What’s more, to this point, she’d held firmly to the doctrine imposed by her Christian values; he’d be taking her virginity, something he hadn’t done since his sophomore year of high school. Still, from the moment she’d mentioned taking their relationship to the next step, he’d thought of nothing else.
In truth, he’d wanted her from the moment he saw her, but at the time, that was only lust. Now, he was admittedly absolutely in love with her.
He made sure their first night together was special, without being cliché, which he knew she’d hate. He was gentle, caring; he made sure she was okay, and their first night turned into a second night, and third night, and it all felt totally right. Sex had never before meant so much to him, and he was glad that she felt the same way.
It wasn’t like in the movies, when they say sex ruins all the good of a relationship. That relieved her; sex just became another aspect of intimacy and sharing for them. Their relationship felt absolutely perfect. Of course, they had their little fights, but they were so utterly in love; everything seemed to work for them.
A year after they’d met, they went back to the same exact coffee shop after church. It had become something of a regular stop for them, and that day they reminisced on how far they’d come, how much they’d grown in the past year. He talked about the way meeting her had finally healed him, finally started to fill the void in his life caused by his brother’s death. She mentioned the way meeting him had finally allowed her to let her guard down, to trust someone other than herself. They laughed and joked; he reminded her that now she’d seen Star Wars so maybe she was perfect after all. They went back to her place, where he all but lived also. It was all a typical, idealistic sort of day for them.
At first, the box on the bathroom sink went without much notice. He did a double take as he washed his hands; as the words “pregnancy test” registered in his brain, his stomach lurched, a lump formed in his throat. He fought off an initial wave of panic as he walked back into the living room carrying the box.
The look on his face said something was wrong, and in hindsight, it told her all she needed to know. She bit her lip as she noticed the box in his hand; tears welled up in her eyes.
“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you; I just, I needed some time to think about it. I wanted to talk to my doctor before I said anything,” a wave of nausea and guilt ran over her as she waited for his response.
He paused, pushing the panicked feeling out of his mind. Reminding himself to be calm and rational. “No, it’s fine. I understand. It’s just, this is just an empty box, I’m guessing the test was positive by what you’re saying though right?” He sat down next to her as he spoke, wrapping her in his arms, comforting her as she steadied her breathing.
“I’ve taken one every day this week, all positive,” she replied.
They sat in silence for a little while, both wrapped up in their individual worlds of thought. Both ran through all the same things, afraid of what to say out loud. He was 25, she’d just turned 23, so yes, they were both old enough to be responsible for their actions; they were both technically well over the age of many parents, but in truth, neither of them wanted, or felt ready, to be responsible for another life. Neither of them had the sort of job they wanted to have when they started a family; nor did they live the sort of lifestyle they felt was conducive to properly raising a child. They were still happily, somewhat irresponsibly, living the spontaneous life of a twenty-something. They thought about the countless ways their lives would change no matter what decision they made, and they selfishly did not want their lives to change at all.
They spent the whole night discussing every pro and con.
Having the baby and starting a family would mean financial distress for almost certain. For him, it would mean giving up his fun and casual job at the bike shop in exchange for a more financially promising job with room for growth, more than likely a suit and tie job at a bank since his degree was in wealth management. It would mean giving up his apartment, which had become more of a workshop than anything, and also giving up all his equipment and tools, and furniture building altogether, since there wasn’t room for it at her place, nor would he have time for it with a bank job and a new baby. For her, it meant wrecking her body several years before she planned on sacrificing it for children. It would mean halting all of her plans to open an art gallery of her work and work from other local artist, and instead hoping for the full-time promotion at the school she worked at to teach art to elementary and middle school students. In a lot of ways, they both felt like it would mean giving up their dreams.
Having the baby and putting it up for adoption posed it’s own set of faults as well. Again, she would wreck her body, and in this case, for a child she’d never even know. They would both have to face the stigma of an unplanned pregnancy at their church and with all their friends; and they both knew they’d worry endlessly that a child they gave up was out there and not being cared for properly. Ultimately, the idea of that sort of guilt terrified them both.
They talked about the qualities they each had that would make them good parents: they were young, vibrant, and creative so their child would always feel encouraged to try new things; they were loving and caring no matter what the circumstances so their child would never feel lonely or invalid; and they’d each been through very different life experiences which meant they’d have advice on nearly everything. They could be good role models; any kid could confide in them or seek guidance from them. They’d be patient and understanding.
They talked about the qualities they each had that would make them bad parents too though: they were young and not tied down, which often made them irresponsible; they were still deeply absorbed in their own lives, selfish even, which they both knew would likely make them resent a child who made them stop investing entirely in themselves; they still had so much to learn about life on their own, and if they never learned all of those lessons, how could they possibly raise a child?
They talked about what their families would think. His would expect things to end badly, as was par for the course with his recent track record; hers would undoubtedly blame him and never accept him into their world no matter what happened. Both would call it a problem, and try to throw money at it.
They talked about what their friends would think. A lot wouldn’t care one way or the other; some would grow distant, annoyed by all the baby talk and the shift in responsibilities; some would say they weren’t ready for this; some would say not raising it was worse than raising it poorly.
Then they talked about abortion.
They talked about the guilt they knew they’d both feel.
“But neither of us wants a child,” he said.
She bit her lip, fully aware he was right, not at all ready to admit it.
They talked and thought; both their bodies and minds filled with exhaustion. Nonetheless, neither of them could stop thinking or talking. Sleep seemed as if it would never come; they were too consumed by making a decision.
Finally she wore herself out from fits of crying. She’d cried thinking about how people at church would judge her for having a baby before marriage. She’d cried thinking about giving up her dreams of owning her own art gallery and selling her pieces across the country. She’d cried thinking about watching him give up his dream of supporting himself with his furniture making, and she cried imagining what it would be like to see him every day knowing they’d given up their baby, either by adoption or abortion. She’d cried thinking about every single thing they discussed, and in the end, the tears had finally put her to sleep.
He carried her from the couch where they’d been into her bedroom. He tucked her into her blankets, and kissed her forehead.
All the time she’d been crying, he’d been thinking too. Although he’d been strong and brave for her, he’d been breaking inside as well; even more so once he’d decided what to do.
The thing about their situation was that no option was a good option; he knew that, and he knew she’d never be able to make a choice unless he made one for her. A lot of the options, and a lot of the factors for consideration, only mattered because their relationship was so solid, because they were together.
He slipped on his jacket and his shoes; tears fell from his eyes. The door clicked shut behind him and he took a deep breath, steeling himself for the decision he was making. He closed his eyes in utter anguish as he twisted the key to her apartment off of his keychain. He stood there a few moments, seemingly paralyzed in the doorway; he ran his thumb across the sharp, jagged edges of the key, pressing hard into each point, hoping that physical pain would somehow lessen the pain inside of him. With one last deep breath, he kneeled down, and slid the key under her door, locking himself out forever.
inspired by Lena and everyone at Lenny who put the idea in my inbox