A Girl

by Matthew Alexander

A portable stereo in the corner of the clinic waiting room played static-flecked synthesized versions of old pop songs. The air was heavy with the smell of chemical-cleanliness and unmoved by the lifeless ceiling fan above, already gathering winter dust. My right leg was impatient, shaking, when “The Girl from Ipanema” started for a third time, and I couldn’t help but walk over and hit the ‘stop’ button with my fist. Who listens to muzak at a time like this?

The reception nurse glared at me from behind her computer monitor, but said nothing. I carried on reading from the wrinkled thesaurus I’d found on the bookshelf beside me.

A blunder.

A bungle.

A misadventure.

My English professor had passed on this advice for if we ever felt lost with our stories. He told us to head to the library, look up the keywords of the story in a thesaurus. It must – and he repeated this point – be a heavy bound copy, the kind that could kill you should it fall on your head as you lift it from the shelf. “The words, incubated by the silence of the place, help your mind make sense of things.”

He insisted this worked for any problem.

Were he here now, my professor would have commented that in the absence of music a deafening silence now filled the room – although he wouldn’t have phrased it in such a cliched way. No, last semester he had lectured that “the descriptions are colored by the consciousness of the character through whose eyes the story is viewed,” a line that I circled with red pen in my notes. In which case he probably would write that the atmosphere here was like a funeral parlor the day before a ceremony, or a holding cell for the dead and the soon to be so.

The old man opposite me looked up from his magazine, coughed and shook his head my way. I got the same shake and glare one-two when I arrived and gave the girl’s name to the nurse at the front desk.

“You were supposed to drop her off and pick her up.”

“The traffic was terrible,” I avoided her eyes as I said this, “no parking spaces.” Both of which were true, but neither of which told why I’d called the girl in question in the middle of last night, unable to sleep, instead just staring at the artexing on the ceiling above my bed for hours. It didn’t explain the initial relief that I felt when the call rang through to voicemail, why I suddenly panicked when prompted to leave a message, told the digitized voice that I couldn’t make the appointment. I would never have said that to the girl herself, never would have been able to tell a real person such a thing. In the morning I ignored her calls, held the phone in my hand and stared at the flashing screen instead of being there, as she had asked.


I cracked the bones in my hand over and over and jangled the change in my pocket. At the far end of the waiting room were white double doors, their frosted glass circles staring right at me. Don’t judge me now, I came through, I am here. I wondered if she could hear the old man’s coughing from down the corridor. I felt like yelling, making a big show of it. I’m ready to hold your hand.

The old man searched the magazine rack for some new material. Three year old National Geographics, home improvement magazines, parenting guides. He had an origami kind of face, all folded wrinkles and no edges. He picked up a travel brochure and coughed again.


The letter confirming the appointment explained that it would take four hours, give or take. On the reverse side were various guidances. Directions to wear loose, comfortable clothing. Bring flat shoes and a sweater. Starting two hours before the allotted time, do not eat or drink anything – this last part screamed in capitals.

“I know you’re busy, Matt, but you’ll come with me, won’t you?” She asked. “This is our situation, not mine.” 

I nodded, yes.

“Are you sure?” She tried to meet my eyes in an attempt to seal the contract. Tried, because my eyes were cement, stuck staring at the floor.


A bomb, a breakdown, a bust.

A disappointment.

An implosion, inadequacy, a sinking ship, a total loss.


Two weeks before, we had gone to the doctor about the stomach pains, nausea. I remembered he asked her about her eating habits. She said she hadn’t been able to keep anything down for days. I un-held her hand at this point – she hadn’t told me this part. The doctor asked about whether she was late or not, and I looked at my watch, although I knew what he meant.


An accident. It was as much what the thesaurus didn’t say as what it did say. An idiot. A decision. Adolescents, kids, what were we doing?


“I think we should talk about this some,” she said over the phone. “You can’t just run away.”

“Talk about what. And I didn’t run, I walked,” a point I was keen to make. “Let’s schedule an appointment and get it over with.”

“For a writer you sure have a way with words.” She hung up and although her number was on my screen I didn’t immediately call her back. I told myself that she wouldn’t want to be bothered during this difficult time – these exact words.


I turned the page and a bookmark fell out of the back, lions or tigers – the cage photoshopped out – at the San Diego Zoo. I thought of my high school biology teacher telling the class that just 4% of animals are monogamous. Animals that tend to look alike are more likely to mate for life. I thought of her blonde hair to my black hair. Alliance. Decency. Virtue. How could I be sure it was mine?


The second clinic was located in the city center, but on a back street behind a large crowded department store. The quickest way was to walk through it, but I insisted we walk all the way around, not wanting to be recognized at this time.

Inside, the doctor handed us a leaflet with a photo of a young woman on the front whose face was tilted to the side with a half open mouth, like she was deciding between the meat or the fish.

The first bullet point: I think I’m pregnant! The fifth: How to arrange a procedure. I felt this should have been the first and only point. How is an abortion performed? I handed the leaflet to her. She burst into tears – my professor didn’t like stock phrases, but this was the correct phrase here – when we saw the ultrasound the following week. The nurse asked me to wait outside while they had a little chat. Later, she told me that the nurse asked if she was sure this was what she wanted, told her that it was her choice too, one that she had to be comfortable with. “But of course you’re comfortable with this,” I said.


Contrition. Sin. Accountability. The old man and his coughing became unbearable. My biology professor talked about lions and tigers too, about the mating habits of spiders, filial infanticide.

A miracle, an achievement – the antonyms made me feel better.


The procedure lasted about four and a half hours in total. The doctor said it was successful, and I wondered if he used that word every time. On the drive home I asked how she was, said the things one is supposed to in such situations. “It’s all going to be okay. It’s for the best.”

She stayed at my place for the following three nights and wore the same blue sweater the whole time. We watched daytime talk shows and I ordered takeout for us each evening, although she hardly ate a thing.


She didn’t call after that, although she probably thought to. A blessing. Normality. I didn’t call either.


My professor would have probably told me that this story needed a clearer resolution. I would have agreed, and gone back to the draft, reworked it a little. Something something epiphany, and amends made – if not to those directly involved, then at least in the narrator’s future relationships. Would that be enough? Would that help the poor girl? Perhaps I would have argued that the narrator’s actions could instead serve as a comment on male detachment, the cowardice of youth. My professor might have responded, “but in that case you need to make him more sympathetic. To tell the truth, at times he just comes across like an a-hole.”

“That’s not fair,” I would have thought to say, but didn’t want to give too much away about the truth of the story.

Matthew Alexander was born in the north of England and presently lives and works 6,000 miles away in Tokyo. He has a sparsely maintained blog at http://matthewalexanderga.blogspot.jp/.