Category C: Highly Commended (2021) Monash Short Story Writing Competition
Author: Rainie Zenith
I'm standing in the living room.
I'm standing at the crossroads.
A war-torn man hunches echidna-like on the couch, spikes erect, eyes consumed by expectancy.
I once loved him, a very long time ago. I still wear his ring on my finger, nine carat gold with ten diamonds, princess cut. I still share his bed at night, firmly wrapped in pyjamas, my flannelette chastity belt. We still have these arguments with no resolutions, but this time is different; this time I must cast a decision from which there will be no turning back. Those hopeful, fearful eyes do not leave mine.
He is waiting for an answer.
I met a girl named Kitty while backpacking around New Zealand in the early nineties. She was a British gap year student, enrolled to commence fine art at Oxford the following autumn. Kitty was all vintage dresses and chunky boots, Brummie accent and careless hair. She drank with abandon, ate with gusto, and had braved a bungy jump on the South Island three days prior. She was everything that cautious, frugal, sensibly-dressed me would never be, no matter how much I desperately wanted to.
We spent a week at a hostel in Wellington, discovered we were both headed for Taupo and decided to hitch together.
Safer in pairs.
Picture it: two girls tramping along State Highway One, thumbs out like window flags, driver of black station wagon pulling up to offer a lift. He was a perfectly average middle-aged man, there was nothing overtly odd about him, but I had a bad feeling in my gut. Kitty was getting in, whether with or without me.
I stood on a highway where there were no connecting roads for miles.
I stood at a crossroads.
In the end, I went with my gut and watched the black wagon drift away with Kitty belted into the passenger seat.
I walked back to town and caught a bus.
I saw her name and photo in the news a month later. The police had found her body in the remote farmland of Papanui Junction. I loosed many tears, most of grief for Kitty, some of relief for myself.
How one single decision can change the entire course of your life.
But one single decision is what I must make and convey to the worn out man who still calls himself my husband. Hope burns in his eyes alongside trepidation.
How can I stay? Yet how can I leave?
I don't have an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other. I have devils on both shoulders.
They say Robert Johnson went to the crossroads at midnight and sold his soul to the devil in exchange for musical talent. Perhaps it's true, because he became one of the greatest blues guitarists ever, before promptly dying at the age of twenty-seven. Then again, they also say only the good die young.
When I was seventeen, I fell pregnant, very much by accident, to a boy named Neil. Unless you've been pregnant yourself, you've no idea what effect the flood of hormones has on your emotions. I felt maternal, I felt love for my unborn child; my heart yearned to give the baby life, to cradle it in my arms and cherish it like I could nothing else.
I also had two years left of high school, hoped to study law at university, and was vying to be captain of the girl's netball team next year. Not to mention how much I was looking forward to travelling, partying, doing all the things that young adults do.
And as for Neil? He didn't care what happened to the baby because he denied it was his and stopped answering my calls. Yes, really.
One single decision...
My husband and I never had children. Perhaps that's why we grew apart, no fusing of our genes into one single being to permanently bond us.
Or perhaps that's why we managed to endure our coexistence for so long before the volcano finally erupted. Vesuvius raining down ash and pumice, but whether to suffocate or preserve?
In Britain, it used to be a tradition to execute and bury criminals at the crossroads. Bodies swinging from gallows in places of high traffic, warnings to others who might have considered treading the same paths. Wrong way! Turn back! Stop before you reach the point of no return! For when it comes to major decisions, a choice, once made, is irreversible.
My parents decided to break up when I was twelve. Theirs had not been an existence of fiery arguments, but of sleet cold silences. Equally as deadly.
Dad moved to Narooma with nothing more than a suitcase and a blonde woman he met at the gym. Mum stayed in the family home in suburban Melbourne with Jasper the spaniel. I had a decision to make.
I could continue to traverse the road I was on, stay with Mum and Jasper in the house I grew up in, go to high school with the kids I had known since early childhood.
Or I could turn down a different road, one that led to Narooma and Dad, to sun and sand and surf, to new friends, a new house, and a new beginning.
I took the path of least resistance, followed the road I was already on. I stayed with Mum.
It's so simple to keep heading in the same direction, so much easier than to stop and turn. How much less complicated to tell my husband yes, I'll stay, how much more straightforward than to announce my departure. No splitting of assets, no severing of family ties, no having to decide who gets to keep the dog.
Humans are change-avoidant. Forward momentum makes it hard for us to pivot. But the easy choice is not necessarily the best choice. In fact, it rarely is. But it is commonly said that people only choose change when the pain of staying the same outweighs the pain of changing. Exactly how many arguments does that take?
In folklore, crossroads represent a location between the worlds, a site where two realms meet, a place that is quite literally neither here nor there. To stand at the crossroads is to exist in a liminal state, on the threshold of decision, between the time that came before and that which is yet to come.
During this state, the power is in our hands. Just as quantum physics tells us reality doesn't exist until it is observed, so time appears to stand still until we make our next choice. And choose we must, in order to bring the rest of our life into manifestation. But choose wisely; remember, one single decision can change the entire course of your life.
How can we ever know ahead of time which decision is the right one? It's not something we can even fairly judge in hindsight. After all, who can definitively say whether it is better to travel to Venice or Florence?
Perhaps there are no right or wrong decisions, just easy and hard ones.
Tonight I stand at the crossroads and face all of the dreams and fears that plague my husband's eyes.
I make the hard decision. I slip the wedding band from my finger.