By Grace Malinee
Honorable Mention, Prose, Create | Encounter 2021
The tilted tree outside Colette’s corner office window acted as a kind of metronome, scritching against the glass in such a regular rhythm that Colette unconsciously kept time to it with the tapping of her pen.
It was half past seven by now, but Colette hadn’t even considered going home yet. Not until the stack of papers to grade had shrunk from the towering monolith that currently dominated the corner of her desk.
Normally, once her office hours were done, she’d take some of the papers home. Chatham must surely be there by now, with their leftover stuffed peppers, a glass of merlot, and his own stack of undergrad papers to grade. ‘Twas the season. But she couldn’t feel comfortable going home until she’d made at least a little more progress.
Just a few more, she promised herself, pulling a stapled paper off the top of her stack and once more clicking her grading pen to the ready position. Just a few more tonight, and then a few more tomorrow, and then the day after…and then maybe, finally, she could put this semester to rest.
As Colette looked at the paper, turned a pale yellow by the light of her weak desk lamp, her eyes blurred and stung with fatigue. She rubbed them with one hand and stifled a yawn with the back of the other.
She had been wicked tired the past two weeks. The sun was setting early, and she hadn’t had the time to wake up with her morning bike ride. Her students themselves were stumbling blearily into class, unkempt, sleep-deprived, and overly caffeinated.
And to think, she mused, that I used to imagine my professors were just sitting back and relaxing while we did all of the hard work during finals.
Audacity, from Latin’s audicitas, and in Medieval Latin, transposed as audax--
Colette stopped rubbing her eyes and laughed a bit at herself. Had she really just been mentally giving the etymology of a word she’d just been thinking?
She really was tired.
“Alright,” she said aloud. It was evident that she understood historical linguistics. The question was--did her students?
She turned her attention to the paper at hand. The papers were a simple etymology deconstruction and a report of changed morphology and semantic shift.
Colette was a mere three sentences into reading an introductory paragraph when her phone buzzed.
A text. From her sister.
Though Colette had texted her much earlier in the day, Laura never seemed to have time to text her back until she got the kids to bed. Such was the life of a single mother.
“Jace has been really into Power Rangers…” the text began.
Right. The boys. Christmas presents.
That’s what Colette had been asking her about.
She had to get the boys Christmas presents before she visited Laura for the holidays in a week and a half.
She was always grateful for Laura’s specificity and detailed instructions in the present-giving department. Colette was admittedly clueless about what kind of stuff kids liked, especially three rambunctious boys under the age of ten. Colette rarely saw her three nephews, as they spent holidays alternating between her sister’s house and staying with their father who lived two states away. And as much as Colette wanted to be the ‘fun aunt,’ she so rarely spent time around any children that she found herself embarrassingly baffled as to what exactly to do around them on the rare occasion she found herself in their company.
Of all of the professors in the English and Linguistics department, she was definitely the youngest, which would presumably give her a leg up, but none of her friends had children and few of her colleagues, and the ones who did were empty nesters. The one notable exception to the rule was Diane Rivers, but Diane was an outlier in most regards, not only as a mother to school-aged children, but also as one of the English professors that mostly worked with Education majors. But even she had tenure. Colette was one of the very slim minority who had yet to receive it, though she expected it to happen by the end of year, if all went according to plan.
‘And then you’ll really have a hard time getting rid of me,’ she’d told Chatham with a cheeky grin a few weeks ago over breakfast. He’d simply smirked at her and swiped a bit of peanut butter off the corner of her lip with his pinky finger and given her a wink.
‘Like I’d want you to go anywhere,’ he’d said.
It was a running joke between her and Chatham that she was the one student that he’d never been able to shake.
When Colette had returned to the university after graduate school and a brief adjunct stint elsewhere, the romance that had kindled between her and Chatham had raised a few eyebrows in their department. But now that four years had passed, and now with Chatham and Colette living together, most of their colleagues had since replaced the image of Colette as a fresh-faced undergrad with the image of her as a competent professor.
While Colette had never dreamed of any sort of romantic entanglement when Chatham had been nothing more than the ‘cute young professor’ she’d taken classes with in undergrad; she was glad that their mutual admiration had blossomed into something more.
She and Chatham were always on the same page about everything, it seemed. Academically. Philosophically. Ethically. She’d never previously imagined she could find someone that was so compatible with her.
She sighed as she turned her attention fully to Laura’s text and opened it up to read it. She only wished Laura had been able to stay with Mike. Of all of the tragedies in the world, their dissolved marriage was one of them. They had been so happy--giddy even--all through their dating life and into their marriage, the honeymoon phase of which had seemed to last longer than usual.
But it had all gone wrong when they’d begun having kids. Parenting differences and the stress and strain of raising a family had gotten the better of them, it seemed.
Another reason me and Chatham are never having kids, Colette told herself yet again.
That was one thing she was glad Chatham also agreed with her on.
She remembered, with a wry smile, how Chatham had not-so-subtly choked on his gin and tonic at the last faculty Christmas party when Diane Rivers had made a casual comment about her five children.
‘Five?’ Chatham had voiced incredulously on the drive home that night. ‘Do you have any idea how big of a carbon footprint a family of seven leaves?’ He’d paused, sighed, and pushed his glasses up higher on the bridge of his nose. ‘Being that wanton with your family size is a small step away from environmental terrorism.’
While Colette wasn’t sure if she would phrase her thoughts quite that strongly, she did admit that he had a point.
While she wouldn’t begrudge Diane Rivers her minivan or her sensible shoes (even if Colette found both tacky), she was more than pleased with her childless existence.
She once more returned her attention to the paper at hand.
The word in question: Serendipity.
Interesting choice, Colette thought. It was a word in the English language with a definite birth-date, which was rare. The term didn’t exist until it was coined in 1754, by Horace Walpole in relation to the fairy tales he penned about The Three Princes of Serendip--
Colette’s attention shattered at the sound of the vacuum cleaner whirring in the hallway, as the night janitor shambled her slow steps, trundling the vacuum in front of her and wiping down doorknobs as she went.
Colette sighed at the intrusion and rose to shut her office door, but as she swung it shut, the smell of cleaning chemicals wafted over the threshold, a potent and acidic smell akin to vinegar.
Her stomach turned over suddenly and she found herself gagging over the wastepaper bin to the right of the door.
She had skipped dinner, so mercifully, nothing came up, and after a moment, flushed and embarrassed, Colette straightened up and wiped her mouth with the back of her hand.
What was that about? she wondered.
Colette took a moment to take stock of herself, but despite her near-miss of vomiting in her office, she didn’t feel ill. She felt her own forehead, but there was no indication of a fever, and after several breaths through her mouth, the nausea abated, and no feeling of malaise remained.
Weird, Colette thought as she wandered back to her desk, her mind still scrambling for an explanation.
Well, she normally got a bit nauseous on the cusp of her period.
Perhaps that was it--come to think of it, she had been awfully tired lately. Surely another sign that it was just premenstrual hormones.
Colette sat down at her desk and she pulled out her phone and opened the app where she kept track of this sort of thing.
She waited impatiently for it to load, drumming her pen against the side of her desk with renewed vigor, willing herself to dispel the nervous energy.
Finally, the screen loaded and announced with far too much nonchalance:
Period, 10 Days Late.
Colette’s mouth ran dry. Her heart pounded. The feeling of nausea returned.
No. No. Surely not.
She flipped open the desk calendar, did some mental math, checked the app again.
But no, it was right. Her period was ten days late. Had the end of semester scramble caused her to overlook this abnormality? How did she not realize this sooner?
The thought sprang to her mind uninvited, unaccounted for, unaccepted.
What if I am pregnant?
The nausea increased.
That couldn’t be it, though. She and Chatham were always so careful. Always so--
It must be her birth control messing with things. She had had some problems with it earlier this year, but things had evened out again when she’d switched pills three months ago. Maybe old problems were just resurfacing, that’s all.
She returned her attention to the paper before her, desperate for a distraction from her rapidly spiraling thoughts.
Serendipity, she began again. Coined in 1754 by Horace Walpole.
What if I’m pregnant?
The thought came again, more insistent this time.
She set her pen down, she breathed out through her mouth.
She shoved the paper aside.
On the ground floor of the building that housed the offices for the English and Linguistics Department was the Women’s Resource Center tucked into a corner by a drinking fountain and a little bigger than an oversized broom cupboard.
Colette was one of the faculty advisors for what was known as the WRC. She always advised the student volunteers to keep their pamphlets and information up to date, and keep the little office stocked with things to help keep students safe: free condoms...and free pregnancy tests.
She looked over her shoulder at the empty ground floor before inserting her key into the door and entering the WRC, using a trembling finger to flick on the lights.
Though she knew there was no real theft in taking a free pregnancy test from a student center, it still felt like supreme contraband as she slipped not one, but two little plastic envelopes into her purse.
Two minutes later, she found herself in the single-stall gender-neutral toilet, grappling with the packaging of the first test, her hands clumsy and shaky.
She read the instructions printed on the back.
She’d never had to do this before.
She’d always been so careful, or quick with the morning-after pill, or the inevitable cycle of nature had eradicated any of her fears before she’d reached this point.
She took one test, then the other.
It said to wait 2-3 minutes.
She put both of them on the back of the toilet, face down.
She set a timer on her phone.
Then she washed her hands, and waited.
Colette studied her smudged mascara in the mirror, and of all the horrified thoughts in her mind, one rose victorious above the others:
What am I going to tell Chatham?
A feeling of unease, and guilt, slid its way into the pit of her stomach.
But no--this wasn’t her fault, it wasn’t. And she hardly thought Chatham would blame her for it--but what were they going to do?
She braced both of her hands against the sides of the sink and knew, with sick certainty, what she would do.
They had discussed it before.
She would get an abortion, at the clinic that she donated money to. At the very clinic whose information had been stapled by student volunteers to the very pregnancy test wrapper she’d just thrown into the trash.
At this stage, it would likely be a matter as simple as taking a couple of pills, and perhaps a day off work. Or perhaps just spending her first day of Christmas break on the couch with a heating pad.
After all, it was safe, it was legal.
At least that’s what she told the students. And the WRC volunteers whom she trained, should any scared and panicked girl come seeking their counsel and a free pregnancy test of her own.
But as often as Colette had told students to repeat those words, to tell their peers that it was no big deal, that it would all be over soon, or that it was a simple fix, really--
At that moment, she couldn’t convince herself to believe the same.
As much as the image of a scared undergrad girl walking into the clinic to do something about her situation filled her with a sense of relief, she realized then that the image of herself walking into that very same clinic and asking for two pills in a brown paper sack filled her with nothing but a dread and anxiety far greater than her fear of what the pregnancy tests perched on the back of the toilet were about to tell her.
A wave of remorse rose up in her. She stifled a sob with her sleeve.
Her phone buzzed as the timer sounded.
Though Colette usually wasn’t a praying woman, looking up at the ceiling she muttered an ambiguous prayer to an even more ambiguous deity. All she could muster was: please.
She was not sure what exactly she was asking for.
She flipped over both of the tests at once.
Four pink lines looked back at her.
She blinked. But the image remained. Four pink lines.
She conferred with one of the test wrappers.
One line for not-pregnant. Two lines for--
“Pregnant.” She whispered the word aloud.
And uninvited, unaccounted for, and unexpectedly, a completely alien feeling washed over her in an instant.
Perhaps it was long dormant and waiting for this moment to arise from the uncharted topography of her soul. Perhaps it was springing to birth instantaneously, as the situation manifested it into being.
Shock strung her limbs with tension and left an acidic aftertaste like vinegar in the back of her throat. But from some secret depth, rising and developing seemingly by chance within her, there came a fierce and unbidden joy that overwhelmed all else.
And a protectiveness, a ferocious, ferocious protectiveness for this--
The word rose to her mind unconjured, unsolicited.
For though she could look at any weeping undergrad girl and assure her that her pregnancy was disposable, that her embryo didn’t need to derail her education, some long-ignored maternal instinct forced a different word to the forefront of her own mind.
As much as she could gamble with other peoples’ potential children or reassure them about the simplicity of their choice, all of her polished promises fell to pieces at the sight of those four pink lines.
This would take some getting used to, of course.
After all, she had been so sure, not an hour ago, that something like this would never happen to her.
But with trembling knees, standing in that toilet stall, Colette couldn’t help but feel like the most unlikely recipient of a new feeling, a new horizon, a new life.
While she had been so sure that this was something she had never, could never want, the tears that sprang to her eyes spoke differently.
Something--more than one something--within her had changed.
And nothing else in that moment mattered.
Not what Chatham had to say.
Not the plans she would inevitably have to change.
Not the pride she would have to swallow.
Not the future she would have to recreate.
This surprise had been--quite unexpectedly, to her most of all--a happy one.
A thought occurred to her, then. ‘Coined in 1754, by Horace Walpole…’ What was that word again?
For so many people, abortion is a topic that can only be spoken about in the abstract. It's an intellectual or ethical question that never bears weight in their lived reality. I wanted to write a story in which the main character is finally confronted with the reality of what she has been supporting and must push through the cognitive dissonance to find the truth underneath. For often, while the head may be persuaded by propaganda, talking points, or the coaxing of one's peers, the heart and instincts can hardly be duped so easily.