“The Habit”

Jenn Munt

All rights reserved by the author

 

 

            This story is the story of a young girl and her journey through time.  It is the story of her unique destiny.  Like all good stories, it has no true beginning or ending.  But in order to tell it, we must begin somewhere.

 

***

 

In a small apartment in a decaying suburb of Paris, a greying woman in her fifties sits at a small, square table as she fidgets with a screwdriver.  She slides its body through her fingertips, flipping it end over end.  She stares in amazement at her creation.  Her eyes are fixed on a box in the center of the table.  A month ago, this box was all wires and screws and miniature computer chips.  Now it is a smooth, black six sided cube.  A single dial protrudes from the top.

In a different apartment in a different time, a much younger woman sits at a much larger table staring instead at the face of the man opposite her.  Her swollen belly extends to the edge of the table from the chair which she has pushed back to accommodate her growing girth.  This time, she fidgets with a pen, turning it end over end as she runs her fingertips down the shaft on each flip.

“Would you stop that already Anouk?” the man asks with a clipped tone.

“Why should I?  It doesn’t hurt anyone.  Why should it bother you?”  she responds with open malice.

“I think you know already.  I think you know what it reminds me of.  I think you know what it makes me want to do, and I think you’re doing it on purpose.  You just want to aggravate me.  So stop it already.”

“Well now.  Isn’t that what got us here in the first place?”

The man stands and walks briskly out of the room.  

She half stands and shouts after him, “Why don’t you just accept it already?  I’m pregnant!  It’s your baby!  There’s nothing that can change that!  I’m sorry if your faith can’t handle that!” 

She sits again and places her elbows on top of her belly and her head in her hands and begins to cry.  Her body shakes in short, silent sobs as the tears soak the top of her stomach.

In another time, in another place, the old woman’s body shakes as well, but now in excitement.  She reaches to turn the dial.  Her hand trembles over the top, partly from arthritis and partly from fear.  This is her chance to set it all straight.  Only she can make it right.  Only she can change her mind.

The young woman sits on a low couch facing a box of tissues on a coffee table in front of her.  She maneuvers to the edge of the couch and pulls one from the box to dab her eyes.  The man enters from another room.  He paces the floor and says, “How can you do this to me?  That baby is just as much a part of me as it is of you.  And you know I think it’s wrong.  I want more say in this.  Why are you the one that gets to decide everything?  You’re not God.”

“Well,” she replies in a dry tone, “isn’t it nice of you to start taking some responsibility.  But it’s too late; I made my choice and it’s final.  I don’t claim to be God.  I’m just doing what’s best for the both of us – and I don’t mean you and me.  I can feel it; I know that this baby is not meant to be right now.  Don’t ask me to explain – I can’t, and I won’t try.  All I can tell you is that no one is going to change my mind about this but me.”

She pulls another tissue from the box as he speaks again.

“Fine, you want to do this; you do it.  You’ll be sending yourself straight to hell, and I’m not going down with you.  You’re just being a coward.  You have no faith.”

She crumbles the tissue in her hands and throws it at him in a futile gesture.

“Don’t talk to me about cowardice or faith.  You have no idea what it takes to do this.  You never will.  You belong to a dying breed.  A dying breed of religious zealots who know nothing about real life and real suffering.  Now leave.”

“I’m not coming back.  Even when you beg me later, I won’t be back.  And some day, you’ll know that I’m right.  You’ll know that you’re going to burn for your sins and that there is nothing you can do about it.  I’m not going to be your accomplice to murder.”

“It’s not murder and I’m never going to want you back.  Just get out of here.”

The old woman shivers at the thought of that man.  I knew I would never go back to him – I’m too stubborn for that, she thinks, but having that baby means that we would never have split in the first place.  It was wrong for me to get rid of it…  If only I had known at the time what my life would become. 

But now, she could change things.  She has a chance to fill the empty shell that has consumed her life.  Her hand once again moves towards the dial.

The walls of the clinic are painted in some kind of warm yellowish color – as if that’s supposed to make you feel good on the inside.  The young woman’s heart is knotted while the baby kicks as if trying to escape.  As though he knows what’s coming. 

If I had waited any longer – even another week – this wouldn’t have been possible, she thinks, I would be stuck with a man I don’t love and a child I don’t want…  Thank god men like him don’t make the laws here.

There had been a horde of those people outside with handmade signs forming a picket line.  She had waded through that sea of angry faces and shouting voices, only to be sitting in this warm yellow waiting room.  Waiting.  Watching the clock tick.  Minute by endless minute.

I wish they could see themselves from another perspective, she thinks, I bet there’s not a single one of them that hasn’t made a mistake in their life.  But they don’t realize it because they’re too busy blaming the world’s problems on other people.  People like me.

All of the paperwork is complete.  The only thing left is the actual procedure.  The woman stares at a light blue door on the opposite side of the room.  Through that door is her fate.  Through that looming door is her future.

The door opens as if in slow motion and a nurse emerges from the mysterious expanse beyond.  She pronounces a name that the woman barely recognizes as her own.  The nurse asks if she wants anyone to come with her.  She quietly tells the woman that she has no one with her and stands, as though in a dream, following the nurse into the poorly lit hallway beyond the door.

The old woman’s hand hovers over the dial.  She gently grasps it with two fingers, but just as she is about to turn the knob, some kind of clamor outside causes her to hesitate.  She stands, walks to the window and peers out the curtains.  A policeman has stopped his car across the street and engages a neighborhood man in a shouting match.  She watches for a moment before shaking her head and turning back to the table.  Soon enough, the fracas outside will no longer be a part of the world as she knows it.  She turns to face the table once again, but the device has disappeared.  The woman scrambles over to the table and frantically searches around and underneath it.

“You might as well sit down.  You’re not going to find it in this time,” a voice from the doorway says.

The woman looks up with a start.  A wizened figure stands in her doorway. 

“What is this?  Who are you?  How’d you get in here?” she demands.

The trespasser responds, “Learn how to speak to your elders, would you?  Bring me some tea and sugar and then I will explain myself.”

The woman, taken aback by the commanding tone, stands in irresolute silence.  She does not cow so easily to demands such as this.  The intruder offers another forceful prompt.

“Get a move on, or my lips will stay sealed.  Then you’ll never know what happened.” 

The device is gone and I’m going to find out why, she repeats in her head over and over again, to convince herself that obeying this command is worth it.  She stalks into the kitchen to put a pot of water on the stove.  When she returns, she says in a rebellious tone, “It will be a few minutes yet before the water boils.  Do you think you could grace me with some information?”

“Patience, child.  I’ll tell you in due time.  The sooner you learn to resign yourself to your fate, the easier this will be.  For now, at least, you will not be going anywhere in time.”

The young woman lies on her back on a hard flat bed.  The doctor enters the room and tells her to be calm.  Everything will be over with soon enough.  He takes a long needle and injects something into her arm.

 “This will help with the pain,” he explains.  The room becomes hazy and all she feels is pain in spite of the shot.  She tries to imagine what it would be like without the anesthetic.   A loud sucking noise fills the room.  It feels as though her insides are being removed by a vacuum.  After a few short minutes, the noise ceases and the doctor comes to her side and gently says, “It’s over.  We’re all done down there,” but the pain remains.  Her body feels like an empty vessel, stripped of its important cargo.  She lies on the bed staring at the ceiling as the world slowly darkens around her.

The old woman waits in uncomfortable silence until a loud, shrill whistle pierces the air.  The woman walks into the kitchen and prepares a tray with two cups, a bowl of sugar and a spoon.  She returns and places the tray in front of the grizzled figure who has sat down at her table.  The old woman speaks to her intruder. 

“What may I call you?”

“My name is of no importance, but you may call me Anna if you wish.  Don’t worry about trying to be polite,” she continues, “I’ll begin my story now.  I can feel the impatience bleeding from your every pore.”

Anna picks up the spoon and drops some sugar in her tea.  She says, “I know who you are.  I know your desire to go back and change the decision you made to terminate your pregnancy years ago.  You think that having that baby will change your life for the better.  I am here to tell you that it won’t.”

“Now see here,” interrupts the woman, “how would you know?  How can you say that?  You aren’t me.  You don’t know what I’m thinking.”

“Quite the contrary, my dear.  I do know what you’re thinking, or at least I know the general idea behind what you think, because I myself experienced the same situation you are in right now.  I know what it is like to lose a child – more than one in fact, more than once.  Time travel is a tricky thing…”  Anna shakes her head as though to rid herself of the memory and then continues.

“Now listen to me, or else I won’t continue.  No more interruptions.”

The woman sits in silence as Anna continues.

“I myself come from the future.  You know it must be true.  How else could I have entered your apartment without detection?  How else would I know so much about you and your device?  Now let me tell you something else.  There is a reason you fought so hard to rid yourself of that baby.  I know it is difficult, but think back.  You felt it.  You knew something was wrong.”

The woman makes a move as if to say something, but instead sits in stillness.  She struggles to remember the days she has worked so hard to forget.

The young woman’s eyelids flutter open as the alarm beside her bed chimes.  She slowly pulls her covers back and moves her feet to the floor.  There is no longer any physical pain.  She stands and smoothes over her rumpled clothing from the day before.  The first rays of sunrise dawn over the horizon and slip through the translucent curtain that hangs from the window above her bed.  She slips on a pair of shoes that are waiting beside her bed, picks up a small suitcase nearby, and gently tiptoes out the door.  Once outside, she walks slowly towards the train station and boards a train to Paris; a train whose final destination is the rest of her life.

A man in the seat across the aisle glances at her with curiosity as she flips her ticket end over end.  She sneers at him and he busies himself with something in his bag.  She dismounts the train at Gare Montparnasse and walks out onto the bleak city street.  This is a city of empty people living empty, meaningless lives, and she finds comfort in that.  She is no longer the only one.

Anna continues.

 “You persist in a selfish goal despite the consequences it may pose to others.  You never wanted to have that baby.  Yet you want to have her now because you want him back.  You never learned to deal with the loneliness.  You couldn’t ask him to come back to you because you would be losing face; you would be admitting he was right.”

“But don’t worry.  You can still set things straight without disrupting the flow of time.  You may have lived the first half of your life in emptiness, but the second half will be full of meaning.  As long as you do not travel to that past, your life will become worth something again.”

The woman sits speechlessly at the table.  Without knowing what else to say, she stutters, “How do you know this?  How can you say any of this is true?  And why do you care?  I mean, why bother to travel through time to tell me all of this?”

“Because I have always been selfish myself…  Did you not suspect?  Did you not wonder about the similarities of our names?  I know because I am you.  I care because I am you, and I now know that things are better off without that baby.  I have lived the full life that I was told that I could have.  And now, I am completing the chain.  My journey ends here.  You know as well as I do that the only person who could ever change your mind about anything was yourself, Anouk.  Your – no, our destiny was predetermined and nothing can change it.  It is a circle with no beginning or end.”

The woman looks up from her empty cup in amazement, only to see that Anna has the spoon in her fingers, flipping it end over end in that old, familiar habit.  Finally, she speaks, “Tell me about the future.  What am I supposed to do?”

Anna ponders this question silently for a moment.  Finally, she says, “I can’t tell you about the future.  It would ruin the surprise.  And you know how we love surprises…  All I can tell you is that the contraption will be there when you need it.  And then, it will be your turn to return and change our mind once again.”

 

***

 

A much older woman relaxes on a couch beside a similarly aged man.  Her wrinkled hand is entwined in his.  His eyes are closed and she gently speaks his name.  He fails to respond.  She shakes him lightly, and when he fails to respond again, she increases the amount of force.  He still does not move or speak.  She stands and shuffles into the adjoining room, only to see a small black box with a single dial sitting in the place of the telephone.  Her time has come.  Again.  As it always has and always will and always is; always there to complete the circle of time.

 

©2005 by the author