We traipse the length of the clinic, searching its wall of mirrored panels for the entrance, and finally find it on our second pass; but when I lean into it, it won’t budge. I try to peek through the glass, but all I can make out are my eyes. I curl my knuckles, ready to knock, when she stops me.
“Hey.” Her fingertips touch just below my wrist.
“I’m kinda nervous.”
“Oh, Cubby.” That’s how we address each other when we’re alone – a lexicon of bear cub synonyms. I smooth the hair by her temples, looping strands behind her ears, then pull her close and kiss her forehead. “It’ll be fine.”
“It’s just kinda weird. Nobody else has ever really seen me, uh …” She gives me this quick, nonchalant head dip while flicking her eyes down at herself. “You know, down there.”
The reason we’re here, at this clinic, is because of a talk she had with a coworker during a smoke break. I imagine the conversation went something like this:
“So, naturally, you know, I’m lying there kind of tense on the, uh – on the table thing, you know, with the stirrups and all that – and the doctor guy, he’s all up in there, and I’m thinking, like, ‘Oh my Jesus, your hands are like icicles!’ And I must have, like, flinched or something because he stopped for a second, brought his hands up to his mouth and breathed on them – like, haaaaah – and then he, like, rubbed them together, you know? Like he was some hobo trying to keep warm by a trashcan fire. Maybe he thought he was being cute or funny or something, but it totally came off as creepy.”
“Whoa, what a weirdo. That sucks, dude.” Marci calls everyone dude, boy or girl. “Kinda makes me grateful I’ve never had one of those, uh … you know, visits.”
“Yeah, girl, trust me, you do not, ever, want some guy to … wait, what? What do you mean?”
“I just … I’ve never gone to see a stuff-doctor before. It just seems kinda awkward.”
“Yeah, but, like, never never? Oh no, girl, you definitely should. You have to. It’s so important. Don’t let my little creepster horror story put you off. Like, for instance, did you know … ?”
When Marci got off work, she came over and told me about the conversation. I looked up the clinic info and held her hand while she booked her appointment.
I knock on my reflection in the mirror glass and there’s an electronic squawk, like the feedback blast of a megaphone, then a girl’s voice, small but amplified, coming at us from this little slotted speaker box in the doorframe. “What is the purpose of your visit, please?”
I clear my throat and overenunciate each word like I’m placing a drive-through order. “Oh, yes, hi. I, uh, I mean, we, that is, my girlfriend here, she has an appointment.”
Silence. No response, no door unlatching.
The feedback screech again. “Sir, you’ll need to hold down the button when you wanna talk.”
I hold it down. “Oh, yeah, sorry. My girlfriend here, she has an appointment.”
“What’s the name?”
“That’s Marcella for three o’clock?”
“Yeah, uh-huh. That’s correct.”
“You know it’s past three, right?”
“Yeah, sorry. We had some trouble finding your … ”
Somewhere inside she’s cutting me off, pressing a button that causes the door to unlock with a grinding, electric buzz.
My shoe isn’t even flat against the linoleum before the inside air hits me like it’s something I could bump into. The walls are that same blah shade of green that the army wears and the key source of light in the room seems to be from what little trickles in through the darkly tinted windows. As dim as it looks in here, and even though I can close my eyes and feel the AC’s recycled breath, it’s still at least as hot as it was outside.
The only explanation is the number of people crammed into this waiting room. Chairs in rows, against walls, squeezed into corners, almost all filled.
The general level of enthusiasm of the people waiting – lifting their heads in living-dead unison to see who entered – never exceeds a frown. The room rustles at a volume that barely rises above a chorus of whispers. The potato-chip crackle of women flipping through brittle copies of Cosmo, Us Weekly and Rolling Stone, their pages stiff from the dried hand-sweat of late-stage pregnancy and hot flashes, rides below the sizzling hiss of mothers scattered throughout the room, locked in the same futile loop of reminding their kids to stop that and come here and sit down.
The girl who buzzes us in sits behind a pane of plastic thick enough to stop a rifle bullet, the kind that separates you from bank tellers, depending on your neighborhood.
“Jeez, what do you think it is with all this security?” Marci’s idea of whispering is curling her fingers in front of her mouth when she talks.
“I don’t know. Pro-lifers with pipe bombs, I guess.”
Given her petite frame, egg-smooth skin, and silver bling looping down her chest with the word “Temptress” spelled out in girly rhinestone loops, I’d say the receptionist is our age. Her eyelids droop so far, they half block her pupils, like she’s tired or stoned, and her eyebrows are plucked clean, penciled into bold auburn arches that would put McDonald’s to shame.
“Marcella for three o’clock?” Between her expression and eyebrows, she looks simultaneously amazed and bored.
“Uh huh, yeah, that’s her right there.”
She wilts her head to one side so her ear practically touches her shoulder, juts out her lips, and glares at me like she’s looking over a pair of imaginary glasses. “Yes, and thanks for that, sir, but unless you’re her interpreter, I’d like to hear it from her, please?”
“Oh, sorry …” the words die in my throat.
I usher Marci up to the counter with a tiny hand flourish. Maybe she heard what the receptionist said or maybe I’m carrying it on my face. Marci looks from the receptionist to me, eyes huge and jaw drooped so low I can see her bottom teeth, letting me know she’s on my side with a look that says, Whoa, what’s this chick’s problem?
While she checks in, I’m riffling through the pamphlet display on the counter. One with a segmented wheel of pastel pills on the cover reads: “It’s your life. Live it on your terms.” Another lists signs and symptoms of STDs. Curious, I pluck it out, open it to glance at the pictures inside, and knock the display on its side trying to put it back too quickly. Naturally, I pick it back up and reorganize it, apologizing to the receptionist, who, of course, doesn’t even notice.
Pinned on the office door is a poster printed so large I have to take two steps back to read its simple white words on a black background: “We Support A Woman’s Right To Choose.”
I was raised by a single mother, but I can be a little thick when it comes to lady issues, so reading that poster, it takes me a couple of seconds – thinking, Choose what, exactly? – before it clicks.
Oh. Right. That.
A 360 scan around the room, and the idea creeps up and clubs me over the head that, even filled to fire-hazard capacity, I’m the only man, and that makes Marci the only woman with her man in the room.
The lady behind the bulletproof glass passes Marci a pen and a few sheets of paper on a clipboard through the sliding steel drawer fused to the window. She tells Marci something while touching her fingertips to her chest, then points her to the only seat left, in the back corner. I let Marci take it, naturally, and lean against the wall next to her.
Except for the neat stack of leaflets on the table next to Marci, the only reading material is a Highlights children’s magazine, with headlines like “Jokes for Road Trips” and “Hidden Pictures.” I can’t be sure if flipping through it will make me more or less conspicuous than I already am, but I do know if I don’t grab it one of these little kids, one of these bacteria baths running around, will snatch it up and make the choice for me.
I flip straight to “Hidden Pictures.” There’s this optical illusion that consists of six-by-six rows of solid black squares segmented by white lines. In the negative space where the lines intersect, vague gray dots appear, but if I focus on one intersection at a time, that dot vanishes while the other imaginary dots throb in my periphery.
I glance up, making a weird connection between the optical illusion and the stares I’m getting. From the corner of my eye, I feel somebody gawking at me, but by the time I look at her, she’s flipping through a Cosmo. Or bobbing to headphone music. Or bottle-feeding a baby. When I close my eyes, it’s like I’m an only child again, the center of attention. I open them, and everywhere I look is a face-shaped blur of someone not looking at me.
Sitting across from Marci, a lady with the same penciled eyebrows as the receptionist, lips outlined in that stark, not-quite-black shade of purple, bumps her screaming infant up and down on her gut, squinting into the baby’s face saying, “Shush, shush, shush, shush, shush,” with no effect. There’s a little boy in the aisle between us – I’m guessing her son – with a Moe haircut and a perma-smile etched into his face. With no objections from his mother, he pushes an empty stroller into my foot, then backs it up, and bump, backs it up again, and bump. After each bump, he stops for a beat and looks up at me, giving a laugh that sounds like a hiccup.
Every couple of minutes, Marci takes a deep breath in through her nose and looks up from her clipboard to ask me a question.
“Do I have any medical allergies?”
And bump. And bump.
“Do you think I have trouble sleeping?”
And bump. And bump.
The only person I catch eyeballing me is a girl whose face, shoulders, and hips would look skeletal if it weren’t for the balloon-smuggling bulge of a baby bump jutting out from the top of her jeans. She’s got these deep raccoon circles around her eyes that would send up red flags if the rest of her weren’t already so pale. Her dyed red hair and lipstick-bright tank top give her the look of a cherry impaled on a cocktail sword.
And Marci says, “Would you say that I still drink too much?”
Tank Top Girl gazes at me long enough for me to flip through the entire magazine. I glance at her after every page, but she never looks away, doesn’t blink, as far as I can tell. It’s freaking me out like when Marci’s cat comes into the room while we’re doing it and won’t break eye contact with me.
And Marci says, “There’s a question here about drugs. Do you think weed counts?”
Tank Top Girl though, there’s something in her expression, the way she’s looking at me, the basset-hound slant of her eyes, that I recognize on some intuitive level. I know this look. It sends me back to a time before I had the words to say “bye bye.”
Mom had this same hopeful look at the onset of every potential stepdad. The times I caught her beaming over his shoulder when he sat me on his lap and tried to relate to me, tickling my tummy and making Jim Carrey faces until I peed. It’s the same look she gave him at dinner after the check arrived and he shooed her hand away from it, saying, “Sweetie, please, don’t be silly.” The same look as when she knelt down to my eye level and asked me, “Hey, kiddo, how would you feel about someday calling him ‘Dad’?” It’s the same look that preceded every promise she made me that things are finally going to get better. It’s a look that says, Real men are still out there.
Marci slides her pen under the clip and stands. Her entire walk to the reception counter and back, every eye in the room traces her path like she’s some red carpet celebrity.
Maybe I was wrong about these looks I’ve been getting. Maybe these women haven’t been staring at me this whole time. Maybe they’ve been analyzing Marci’s every gesture, twitch, and unconscious scratch of scalp, trying to unfold the secret of how to attract a man who would symbolize a devotion as simple yet meaningful as moral support, someone who would hold a hand and keep her mind off things with sweet talk and inside jokes before a stranger with frosty, antiseptic hands starts spreading this and swabbing that. Maybe to these women, Marci’s some kind of lady-Moses, leading her people away from the guys that daytime talk shows warned them against, towards the promised man.
There’s an electric snarl and the door to the exam rooms clicks open. A woman in turquoise shirt and pants stands there. She lifts the top sheet of paper on her clipboard and reads Marci’s name out loud, then scans the room. Marci stands and the doctor motions, right this way.
Marci flashes me a smile so tight and tense that for the first time I notice she has dimples. I smile back, give her a dual thumbs-up, and mouth, I love you, bear cub, you’ll be fine. She’s focusing more on her shoes than me, but when she looks back up, to cement the image of what a supportive boyfriend looks like in the minds of these lobby ladies, I blow her a two-handed kiss. Still holding the same, strained smile, she nods at me, then turns into the hall.
As soon as the office door clicks shut, I hop into Marci’s seat, setting some distance between my legs and Stroller Kid. I drop the magazine on the table and scan the room, but something feels off. I’m getting the same looks I was getting before, only now none of them look away when I face them. I wouldn’t call what they’re doing “looking” any more. It’s not even staring, really. They’re glaring, eyebrows low and bunched together, making pug wrinkles over their noses. If their expressions are anything to go by, they want to kill me and eat me.
I grab a fat stack of leaflets, flipping through them for some kind of barrier between their eyes and mine. The first one has a pencil sketch on the front, a young girl frowning at her swollen belly, and reads: “Even if the daddy’s gone, you are not alone. Know your rights as a pregnant or parenting teen.”
Stroller Kid takes a few steps in, closing the gap between us, rolls the stroller back, and then hits into my foot again.
His mother, still bouncing the screeching bundle on her chest, has stopped shushing the baby and now squints at me. The girl who, moments ago, was flipping through Cosmo, one knee crossed over the other, smacking her gum, holds her place in the magazine with a finger and tilts her face slightly away so she can scowl back at me out of the corner of her eyes.
And bump. And bump.
The next leaflet shows a girl sporting a rib cage-length leather jacket and oil slick miniskirt, blowing a pouty kiss at whoever took this picture. Beneath that, the caption reads: “Better safe than statutory. Don’t risk it, know the law.”
If you listen close to my stomach, it’s echoing the words from the poster, “A Woman’s Right To Choose,” through its gurgles and whines. They resonate inside every drop of sweat racing down my spine. It’s the monotonous pop song hook that replays in my head: a woman’s right to choose a woman’s right to choose a woman’s right to choose.
The two of us – Marci and me – we’re old enough to smoke, but not old enough to drink.
This one time, maybe a little more than a year ago, we were out smoking Camels on my patio when my upstairs neighbor shouted down, asking if we had a light. We tossed it up and the three of us got to talking. He was this gnarled old dude who fought in Vietnam even though, deep down, he’s a Dylan-loving hippie. At some point into our second smoke, Marci asked if we could give him cash to buy us booze. He obliged and even gave us back our change, a better deal than we were getting from the local winos, collecting his tax instead in the form of a couple shots from our bottle. We liked the arrangement, and called on him the next night, and the next night, and the next, and on.
We were fun drunks, and made a conscious effort never to drink past the point of having fun, which generally coincided with the point where we would black out, pass out, or barf it all up.
Then this other time, not too long after, Marci told me she was a couple weeks late. I asked her how that was possible and she told me condoms are only, like, 98 percent effective. We planned on heading up to the store to grab a home pregnancy kit but, before we left, I made a quick call to see if my neighbor was around.
When we got back, I paced outside the bathroom door, gripping the bottle by its neck, never letting it dip down below my belt before taking another good pull. There hadn’t been a sober day between us in months, and we burned through a pack of smokes a day, easy. I’d heard the stories, read the articles, and I could see how it would play out as clear as the STD pictures in that pamphlet. Our baby, mine and Marci’s little miracle, was going to come out retarded and mush-faced, with too many fingers and not enough toes, all twitching and panting, the noises from its mouth sounding less like crying and more like the shrieks of a Texas Chainsaw victim, if it came out breathing at all.
In the four minutes it took to see a plus or a minus, I must have set a new Guinness record for fear-drinking.
When Marci finally shuffled out of the bathroom, she huffed out a long sigh, flashed me her sucked-in smile and shrugged. “Just a fluke, I guess. Anyway, it’s negative.”
I could breathe again.
The night was quiet after that. She didn’t feel like drinking and I was drunk past the point of conversation. We watched TV and nuked cans of soup for dinner.
In bed later, she told me I had nothing to worry about. I could relax. She wouldn’t have kept it. Not after seeing the way I reacted. Not after how scared I got.
I didn’t say anything right away. I couldn’t.
I heard her breathing, felt it on the back of my neck, and after some minutes passed with no response, she said, “Hello?”
The best I could give her was, “Uh huh.”
Lying there, curled fetus-tight into myself and still spinning from the drink, I thought in circles about how easily my life could become something so unrecognizable. I would never get used to calling it mine again, and hated myself more than anything for the capacity for selfishness that allowed me to think and feel this way. Like I was really the one this was coming down on. I thought about the words she had used: “keep it,” like our baby’s tiny, retarded life was some ratty orphaned wallet she’d found in a restaurant booth. I thought about the fragile, mutant existence I almost brought into this world, born with too many of my fear genes and shame chromosomes to ever lead a normal human life.
Hovering close to something as big as that, feeling its weight, the pull of its gravity, I felt punier than our imaginary fetus. Then I cried like our hypothetical embryo was growing in my own womb, and then torn suddenly from inside me.
Marci pulled me in and held me close, telling me, “Shush, shush, shush, honey. Don’t feel bad. Please.” She rubbed my chest and squeezed my shoulder, kissing my neck and spine.
When I could talk again, I made Marci the same promise I made myself: I will be better than this.
The truth is, no one in this room knows why I’m here. The only theories anyone might have are based on their experiences. Sure, maybe some are thinking the truth: I’m only here as moral support, a hand to hold during a time of anxiety and discomfort. Maybe that’s what they’re thinking, but with the looks they’re stabbing into me, I doubt it.
To them, maybe I’m an enforcer, some brute to keep Marci from chickening out of what I want her to do. What I want her to get done. Those goofy gestures of support I made when she walked into the office were distorted into some ugly parody of real affection. And her, letting a man make a woman’s choice for her. If that’s what they think, I don’t know how any of them can bear looking at me.
The woman bouncing the little screamer – her other kid ramming the stroller into my foot – I can practically read it scrawled in the stretch marks crawling up her arms and down the collar of her V-neck that it was some man, or men, like me who pocketed the best years of her life and ran off with them. Cosmo Girl still gnaws on her gum, but maybe also thinks about some cheating asshole – à la yours truly – who gave her whatever it is she’s here to get checked out. The baby-bump skeleton in the blood red top is still looking at me, but – even if I’m the only one who can see it – it looks like she’s shaking her head. As if to say, So sad.
And bump. And bump.
Maybe I had her look all wrong before. It’s familiar, sure, but maybe instead, it’s the look Mom had at the end of every would-be stepdad. The look that followed his eyes when they stared a little too long at somebody younger, slimmer, funnier, smarter. A look she had some nights when she stayed up drinking, thinking I’d gone to sleep. Maybe it was the look Marci wore that one night, lying next to me in the dark. The shaking head and sucked-in lips that said, there will always be men like you out there.
And bump. And bump.
I want so badly to stand up and make an announcement. Say, listen please, you’ve got it all wrong. This is just a routine hygiene visit. Sure, maybe I’m not perfect, but I have never, ever laid a hand on her, cheated, or forgot a birthday. I don’t even leave the toilet seat up. I want to let everyone know about the times I walked to the supermarket at 5 am to buy Pamprin and Tampax, because her cramps don’t always run on our schedule.
And yet, in another way, fuck all that. More than proving what I’ve done for her, I want to share with them everything she’s done for me. How it’s through her I’ve learned to care about somebody more than I care about myself, and want more than anything for that person to be okay. I want to walk person-to-person around the room, telling them how my single mother raised me, the bone-deep distrust of men she instilled, how all of us are maybe more alike than we are different. I want to stand on my chair and scream to everybody, Please, just relax, I’m only here to be moral support for the woman I love.
That’s when the office door grinds open and Marci emerges.
And bump. And … miss. As Stroller Kid stumbles, I grab Marci’s hand and we’re out the door before it stops buzzing.
The sun has dipped behind the hills, washing the sky a pale blend of pinks and blues. It’s cooler outside than it was in the clinic.
“So?” I say, catching my breath. “How’d it go?”
“Oh, it went fine. My doctor was this super funny Jamaican lady. Like, as much as I was dreading it before, I’m actually kind of – oh, shoot!” She’s the only person I know who says shoot, and god, do I love that.
“What’s wrong?” She’s stopped a couple steps back, both her and her reflected doppelgänger in the mirrored windows glancing between me and the clinic.
“We gotta go back. I forgot to grab a bag of condoms.”
“It’s fine,” I say. “I can pick some up. Let’s just go.”
Marck T. Wilder moved back to his first home, Los Angeles, after completing his studies in the written arts and literary analysis at The Evergreen State College in Washington State. His current writing projects range from stories and novel chapters to screenplays and rap songs about chess strategies. His short story, “He Was Running On Fumes,” was published by Creative Colloquy in June of 2016.