“Options Counseling” by Jen Fawkes

Issue 18 / Summer 2019 / Abortion Ban Protest Special Issue

 

“I saw them this morning,” you say, “when I was coming home from the gym.”

“Who?”

“The people in my apartment.”

“You came home from the gym and found people in your apartment?”

“No.” You seize a pen that tarries at your right-hand fingertips, click it twice. A point peeks from its shaft, retreats. “It just looked that way.”

The pressed-wood table before you offers up a series of informational pages. The eyes of the young man seated across from you are blue. He was probably born right around the time you were mastering masturbation with Jenny Benz, humping life-sized dolls in her bedroom closet while her parents were at work, until you were racked by little-girl orgasms. Or perhaps he sallied forth from his mother’s womb the very night Kenneth Parker drilled through your hymen in the backseat of his father’s Skylark. The young man studies you, folds his hands on the table. “I’m afraid I don’t understand,” he says.

“I live alone in a garage apartment,” you say, “at the end of a long drive. For four weeks, or perhaps it’s been five, each time I pull into the drive in daylight, I glance up at my apartment and think I see, through the front windows, people moving around inside.”

“Creepy,” says the young man. “When you go in, what do you find?”

“Nothing,” you say. “My empty apartment, just as I left it.”

He cocks his head.

“I’ve considered the possibility,” you say, “that the people I see are the shades of my apartment’s former tenants. That unwilling or unable to vacate the premises, they’re free to roam about only in my absence. Or perhaps they’re always there, but only visible to me once I’ve gone and come back. The way a smell tends, when one enters a room, to strike one, then fades the longer one remains.”

The young man sits in silence. The scar that bisects his right eyebrow reminds you of the boy who gave you your fist kiss. Hal Forrester took a wayward bat to the forehead during a third-grade softball game. The incident left a scar much like the one this young man bears. In first grade, when Mrs. Norton asked you to tell the class what you wanted to be when you grew up, Hal Forrester said Astronaut. You said Mother.

“Briefly,” you tell the young man, “I became convinced that each time I exited my apartment, I left behind echoes of my physical self. And that what I saw when I peeped in the windows on my return was that which would confront anyone who decided to spy on me. A moving picture of myself executing the tasks of daily life. Something slow-moving, contemplative, allegorical. Shot in black-and-white.”

The young man nods, gently.

“But I think the real explanation,” you say, “is that my apartment was built at the convergence of a cluster of parallel universes. And that what I see when I approach my home, even after a brief absence, are the projected images of a life I might now be living if, at a crucial moment in my past, I’d ignored my instincts. Touched off a wholly divergent chain of events. As I climb the stairs, as I joggle my key in the deadbolt, I find myself hoping that there’s been a cosmic mix-up. That somehow I’ve crossed from our universe into another. That what waits for me inside my apartment aren’t shades or echoes but children. A husband. A family to fill the hollow of my home.”

The young man smiles with devastating kindness. Reaches across the table, smothers your hand with a velvety palm. You wonder how many hours he spent in front of a mirror, perfecting this consummate mask of compassion. “I know it’s difficult,” he says, “but this is your decision. Don’t let anyone pressure you into doing something that’s not right for you.”

Behind his head hangs a poster: a colossal, varicolored diagram of the Female Reproductive System. The uterus is orange. The ovaries are purple. The fallopian tubes are pink. You squint, and you think you spy a white speck traveling down the left-hand tube. This is probably a trick of the fluorescent lighting. The young man’s hair is cut into a short, neatly-trimmed, entirely-unexpected Mohawk. You wonder what his parents think of this haircut.

“Ms. Frost,” he says, “you’re just five weeks and three days along. There’s still plenty of time.”

You study the informational sheets before you. Small black letters march across, forming words, phrases, sentences, spelling out your options. You know this young man is accustomed to counseling women two decades younger than yourself, girls who do have time. Time to plan for and create the lives they’d like to live. You want to ask him how anyone can know if a decision will, in the end, be right for them. To ask if he can carry, within himself, two conflicting viewpoints and still function. To ask if it might be possible to expunge all your options but one, since you are, and always have been, terrified by choice. But you know asking these questions would be futile. That the young man is not trained to field such queries. That he is trained only to give an overview. To spout empathy by rote. To provide alternatives, but no relief. That the gulf that separates one individual from another is too wide, too deep for anyone to ford. That the meaningful struggles of mankind are fought not within the frame of the Big Picture, but in the winding pathways of the human viscera. In the chambers of the human heart.

“What do you imagine,” you say, “it is that I see? When I stand outside my apartment looking in?”

The young man creases his forehead. He props his chin on a fist. The two of you sit in silence as he gropes for an answer you know he will not find.

 

Jen Fawkes‘ work has appeared in One Story, Crazyhorse, Shenandoah, The Iowa Review, and elsewhere. She is the winner of the 2019 Pinch Award in Fiction as well as the 2019 John Gardner Award for Fiction, from Harpur Palate. Her stories have also won prizes from Salamander, Washington Square, and others. She is an Assistant Professor of English at West Liberty University in West Liberty, West Virginia.

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