September 12, 2015 by RJ
It is sunny the day Joe takes Terrie to the abortion clinic. The mid-morning sky is deep blues and whites. The air is crisp and pleasant. “Be a man and take care of that baby,” one of the elderly protesters yells at him, her face red, her voice all volume and no soul.
He feels a flush of involuntary shame and excitement. This is real, this is happening. “Being a man is what got me into this,” he yells back, surprising even himself.
“Joe,” Terrie says, clutching at the heavy, metal door. He turns back for a last look at the old woman’s denim jacket and all her religious buttons. The door hisses shut behind them and Terrie goes about the business of getting herself checked in.
“I don’t know why they let them get so close.”
Not knowing if she is talking to him or the receptionist, Joe hands over his credit card and says, “They have a constitutional right to protest.”
“What about my right to privacy?” she asks.
He does not know.
They walk into the waiting room, a square of off-white walls, tan base molding, and teal-flecked vinyl tiling. The choose seats as far away as possible from their neighbors. Terrie roots unhappily through a pile of magazines on the table, finally settling on a glossy celebrity tabloid. She is wearing grey sweats, one of his wrinkled t-shirts, and the navy-colored bathrobe they bought the day before. She spent nearly twenty minutes at the store going through every robe on the rack, pinching the fabric between her fingers, opening the robes wide like sheets in order to inspect them from every angle. Joe willed himself to stay calm despite his impatience, certain the robe would be forever sullied by what was to come, and likely never worn again.
“I want to be comfortable,” Terrie had said.
Joe opens the copy of Huxley’s Evidence as to Man’s Place in Nature that he brought along from Terrie’s apartment. He skips the introduction.
“Why did you bring that?” she asks.
Joe recalls the memory of standing in front of her unfinished pine bookshelf earlier in the morning. He watches his finger move past a collection of E.E. Cummings poetry, a clothbound anthology of Hungarian folktales, then hanging indecisive over the ape skulled Huxley cover.
“I haven’t read it before,” he answers.
Her brow furrows, the nostrils of her aquiline nose quiver almost imperceptibly, and he doubts himself. Had he chosen the book to soothe a buried moral qualm about what they were doing? Had his unconscious decided the best thing for him was to sit here, smug in the knowledge all humanity was the result of history and accident, and nothing that happened here really mattered? They both had agreed readily enough that morning three weeks before when she came out of the bathroom, the double blue-lined home pregnancy test in hand. They had to abort it. They had no money. They weren’t prepared.
It occurs to him he said all those things. He cannot remember what precisely Terrie said.
A nurse calls her back and Joe, already tired of Victorian prose, observes the other occupants in the room. They are mostly women, undoubtedly mothers and sympathetic aunts, though there are two middle-aged men there as well. It occurs to Joe he is the only one there who is likely the culprit of this situation, and this fills him briefly with a dumb sense of pride. It is a vapid and fleeting feeling, which is quickly overshadowed by the depressing, institutional colors of the room surrounding him. When he was younger, the church his parents made him attend hosted a Hell House, a kind of evangelical haunted mansion whose horrors, rather than focusing on murder and monstrosity, depicted sinners receiving their comeuppance. Some of the scenes were miniature morality plays. Joe, for instance, played the role of the young man seduced by the allure of illicit drugs. His only lines: “I don’t need Jesus; I need weed,” and “Woe is me, my life is ruined.”
Other scenes were more panoramic in nature. The one entitled “The Abortion Clinic” looked like a cross between an assembly line and a witches’ Sabbat. A teen girl upright in a hospital bed, her face painted in harlot red and mystery Babylon blue. Her legs and knees peek out of the blanket draped over her lap. A doctor crouched at her feet, catching a plastic baby in both hands. He passes it off to the waiting bucket brigade of red devils, whose grease painted hands leave red smudges as they send the baby along. At the far end of the room sits a papier-mâché Moloch, who looks something like a fat toad, its mouth agape in anticipation. Hidden in its belly an electric fan blows its red, Mylar tongue, which snaps and crackles like a bulbous fire.
Joe remembers this and looks at the tan and teal room around him. The old, Catholic women outside no doubt believed that that cautionary panorama was an accurate enough depiction, and perhaps if the clinic looked anything like that he might more keenly feel what he was doing mattered. Did Bulgakov not write something to that effect? If the devil was real, so God must be, too. He nods to himself, feeling empty and weightless.
On their fourth date, Joe accompanied Terrie to an adaptation of an 18th century German play, “The Tutor.” A friend of hers was in the cast—a chubby gay man whose face he has already forgotten. The play was about the seduction and consequential impregnation of a young girl by her older, private tutor. The program said the play was the supreme example of the Sturm und Drang movement, which translated roughly to Storm and Urge. Sturm und Drang was an emotional rebellion against the intellectual strait-jacket of The Enlightenment, an angry-young-man’s movement, theatrically reminding the world that a man was composed not only of a brain, but of a heart and balls as well. The climactic moment of the play was when the tutor recognized the bastard child as his own, and in a fit of furious guilt castrated himself onstage. The actor looked at the audience, reached up his nightgown with a long knife, and after much blood and screaming, plopped his testicles into a wooden bowl.
“Jesus,” Joe said, “I thought this was a comedy.”
Terrie laughed her tilting laugh, because it was.
He closes his eyes and breathes the neutral waiting room air. It is not his manhood which has brought him here. He wants a life of fury and ecstasy, but he lacks the requisite virtues. The current setting is more than fitting—nothing particularly outstanding is happening.
Terrie emerges later, distant and calm. Joe asks if she wants lunch. Outside, the old women are gone—no good news to spread now that the deed is done. He drives her across town to a home-cooking restaurant with nostalgic tin signs and rusted antiques hanging on the wall. The tables around them are surrounded with old couples, young professionals out for lunch, families taking a break from the grueling monotony of the road. A few patrons cast open stares at Terrie. She is still wearing the bathrobe. Her head dips while she reads the menu. For a moment she looks the way saints do in those gold leafed paintings—impassive and unreal.
They order their food. “Did it hurt?” Joe asks.
“Don’t,” she says, her voice warning and ice. An angel of silence gasps breathless between them. It is present and heavy with possibility, and Joe averts his glance, and it is lost forever.
The waitress hands him his soda. It is cool on his throat. Silverware clinks, and light shines through the windows, loud and uncaring. The earth spins on its axis and revolves around a sun, which hurtles around a galaxy racing through the vacuum of space on a collision course with its nearest neighbor. One day, long after both of them are in the ground, or ashes in the wind, the planets and stars of Andromeda and the Milky Way will crash together in inextricable union. It will be a silent killing, but it will be a holocaust of stardust and heavy elements all the same.
He stares at Terrie’s stoic face. This could be the last meal they share as a couple. Would that be a tragedy? Or perhaps more importantly, could he convince himself it is? The abortion and the romance it ruined— He could have the memory of this moment forever, a black badge of recklessness, destruction, and finality in a lifetime of otherwise dubious drudgery. Their eyes meet across that small distance, and he thinks, what could be more dependably vivid than the joy of regret?
Rod Dixon lives in Kentucky with his wife and two children. His short-stories have appeared in several journals, most recently Red Rock Review, Euphony, and Edge. He is the former non-fiction editor of the now defunct Ontologica: A Journal of Art and Thought. He can be followed on Twitter @rodldixon.