Shishir (Winter) 2020 Stories - Brent Holmes


The Illusion of Choice

By Brent Holmes

James was cognizant of his breathing. In and out; in and out. He slowed his breathing down to a near stop, then, feeling desperate for air, he sped his breathing back up. He rubbed his hands together. Sweat covered his palms. He had been nervous nearly non-stop since this morning, but when he met Jasmine, he had been suave enough to hide it, or so he hoped.


Jasmine had gone to the restroom to wash her hands. His menu lay unopened. He had chosen his meal as soon as he knew he had a date, and he had spent an embarrassing amount of his free time practicing proper pronunciation. When he had been set up, he requested she be a smart, accomplished woman; he never would have found it appropriate to request she be beautiful, but something deep inside him was happy to see that she was indeed lovely.


She returned from the washroom, and James decided she was even more attractive than he had remembered. Her hair had that air of dishevel that can only be created with painstaking effort. Her face was made up in a subtle yet aggressive way. Her breasts swelled out from the deep cut of her midnight blue dress, and her legs danced in and out of view as the slit of her dress bounced around her body. She glided down to her seat and flashed him a smile.


She placed her elbows on the table and cradled her head in her hands. She locked eyes with his, “Tell me, James, how rooted are you in St. Louis?”


“I like it, but I haven’t stopped fielding job offers elsewhere.”


“Good. Sarah said you were a go-getter. Tell me about your job. Do you have the time for a girlfriend?”


James smiled, loosening his shoulders, “Yes, definitely. It’s a perk in my line of work.”


Jasmine leaned forward exposing most of her breasts. James could feel the blood rushing from his brain. “Are you looking to get married?”


“When I know I’ve found the one,” he said. Adrenaline coursed through his veins. His nerves eased. He took in the smells of the restaurant and the bright colours of its walls. How blinding nerves could be.


“How many kids do you want?”


The blinding nerves returned. “Well…I’m not sure.”


“Do you want kids?”


“A lot of personal questions for a first date,” James said, wiping his forehead with his napkin. James became distinctly aware of how small the restaurant was, of how many tables filled with people were within earshot of them.


“Avoiding personal questions is just a stupid dating game. I’m sick of playing those games. I want to find the right person, marry them, and get this single thing over with already,” Jasmine replied.


The conversation took a long pause, and despite all the noise of the raucous restaurant, the silence of their pause rang loudest in his head.


“I don’t know,” James replied to end the hiatus.


Jasmine was silent.


“Look, I know most people know one way or the other. I know most people just want them if we’re being honest, but I’ve thought about this a lot, and I kept thinking that one day the answer would come to me, but it hasn’t. I still just don’t know. I’ve weighed the pros and cons, and to be honest, I’m stuck. A large part of me wants kids. I can’t express why. In fact, I can’t think of a single good reason to have kids at all, you know. Like, do you want kids? If so, why?”


“I want to be a mother. I always have; that’s enough for me,” Jasmine replied. She sat up, and James could no longer see down her shirt.


He thought about explaining that he would need to know the mother of his children before deciding if they should exist; how a child was made by two and the decision should be as well, but he had said similar things before, and they had never worked. Trying to make the relationship first and the decision second was leaving failure after failure in his wake, and this date would be no exception.


He knew he should be upset that he had lost the interest of an intelligent, driven woman, a worthy life companion, but all he could think about was how much he was disappointed he couldn’t have sex with her tonight. He cajoled himself for daydreaming of those luscious breasts and the pure pleasure of a night in her bed. There was an animal side of him that wanted to vigorously penetrate her, bite her, impregnate her, but it rammed right up against his anxiety, ever muddling every aspect of his life.


“Let’s just have a nice dinner. From what Sarah tells me, I still think we could be friends,” she said.


Maybe that could have been true, James thought, but there was something about impregnating a woman in your mind that made it hard to be her friend afterwards.



Two years! Not bad! He had daffodils in his truck, and he had made her a chocolate box with only coconut chocolates. (It had taken a lot of boxes, but Andrea always valued effort.)He had gotten a reservation at her favourite restaurant, and this time he wasn’t going to have to pretend to like whatever horrid dish he ordered last time. (He had gotten some help with the menu from a friend.)Things were going well for Stan, and he couldn’t help but think it was about time.


Having arrived a few minutes early, he waited in the lobby of the restaurant. Outside, Andrea parked her car. She got out revealing a flowing red dress with matching red heels. She had her hair up in an elaborate style and her make-up was expertly applied. Andrea loved to be over-dressed, and though it made him uncomfortable at first, Stan had learned to enjoy it. He had grown to like the stares, drinking in what he had decided was pure jealousy. Stan didn’t have to work to blend in with Andrea. He worked at a bank, so he was always in a suit; it was a comfortable arrangement. It’s funny how wide a range a suit covers.


Andrea whisked through the door, and Stan embraced her. They gave a short kiss on the lips. They were shown to their table and were handed the menus. Stan set his on the table proudly. Andrea snickered, “Have you prepared a little better this year?”


Stan gave a look of mock offense.“I quite enjoyed my…whatever it was that I ate last year!”


Andrea laughed. She was energetic and flamboyant, an unabashed character. Stan gazed at her with cherishing eyes.


The waiter came to them, and they ordered their dinners with their drinks. It was a fancy place, but they were not fancy people, no matter how they dressed.


“I need to wash my hands!” Stan exclaimed.


Andrea laughed.“You haven’t had your hands on dirty money, have you?”


Stan looked left then right, then raised his index finger to his lips.


As he washed his hands, Stan splashed warm water on his face. He locked eyes with the mirror and inhaled and exhaled trying to psych himself up. Today was a big day! He had decided today, he wanted to start talking to Andrea about marriage. Stan was not the kind of man to just catch a woman off guard with a question and a ring, and while he knew Andrea was the kind of woman to excitedly yell, ‘YES!’ and be jubilant, he just couldn’t make himself do such a fool thing.


He dried his hands methodically and walked out of the bathroom. First, they would have dinner and presents. There was plenty of time. He slid into his seat and smiled at his girlfriend, but her eyes looked through him as he passed into her line of sight. She broke her gaze and stared deep into his eyes, boring into them, “Do you want kids?”

Stan shifted in his chair, “Well…we’ve talked about this some before. I think neither of us is really sure, and I think that’s alright.”


“Kids are scary,” she said, “You are responsible for a little person’s life. Multiple lives if you have multiple. You have to care for them, watch out for them, and worry unendingly about all the things you can’t control.”


Stan nodded, trying to avoid outward signs of his inward agony. ‘What could have happened when I was gone?’ he asked himself.


“And it’s worse for me. Pain, suffering, and I’ll literally be bent out of shape. And, of course, there is no going back. There’s no trial run. They’ll be ours forever,” she continued.

“Look, we can figure it out. We don’t have to plan our whole lives today,” he cooed. He didn’t want to talk down planning. He had wanted to talk it up all night, but he was stuck in this conversation, a dangerous conversation that didn’t need to fly out of control and ruin the night.


“It’s not about the planning!” Andrea exclaimed.


A cautious wave of relief.


“It’s about the feeling! Despite all that I want to want to have kids! I want you to want to have kids!”


In spite of himself, “What?”


“How can we be right for each other if we don’t inspire each other to have children?” she asked.


“Are you serious?” he sputtered.“Lots of great couples never have kids, are they wrong for each other?”


“I don’t want to never have kids…”


“Then we’ll have them,” he hurried the words. His face turned bright red as he realized how loud their entire conversation had been. His pride in the attention the two of them tended to gather vanished, and his sickening anxiety returned to rule its forgotten kingdom.


“But I don’t want them. I don’t want them, and I don’t want to be without them. It’s not right, Stan.”


Stan stared, lost for words. Everything he had mustered had failed. Every word that had entered his brain had made things worse, and now he sat. He gazed at her beautiful figure as it whisked towards the exit of the restaurant. There was no reason that he could find, no mistake he had made.


He left swiftly before they could charge him for two dinners he had never really wanted.




John sat near the end of a long table. His wife Lauren sat next to him fidgeting in her chair. His Aunt and Uncle were celebrating their 30th wedding anniversary and had invited the whole extended family to this fancy French restaurant. John would have preferred to skip, but Lauren had been wanting to go to the restaurant for a while now. He wished he had just taken her, just the two of them. He always felt so uncomfortable at these family gatherings. Lauren continued her fidgeting.


“I’m going to wash my hands,” she said to the neighbours at the table.


John watched her walk. She moved hurriedly. He hoped she wasn’t going off to vomit. Lauren was late this month and had been throwing up. Amongst the general dinner conversation and the shuffling of menus, John wondered if he was a father. He never thought he would just be a father. It wasn’t the kind of thing you just became in his family. In his family this kind of thing was meticulously planned. How could he just be a father?


On the other hand, for all he knew his father was spontaneously introduced to fatherhood. After all, he wasn’t likely to announce that his son was an accident, least of all to his son. He just always assumed it would be a choice rather than just a thing that happened. He and Lauren had laboured over the decision hard enough, how absurd that they never made a choice. When they were first married, they were young, and they were certain that they wanted kids, and they were certain that they did not want them yet. When they were less young, they were less certain. It became a question of if rather than when.


Now there was no question. It was sort of baffling. They hadn’t taken risks. They had discussed playing games with fate, letting nature decide, but they had never followed through. It had felt too much like rolling dice, an avoidance of the decision. Yet, here, amidst all the care were they.




John broke from his depth of thought.“Sorry, tired. Zoned out for a minute.”


“Well I was asking how work’s been, but I think I’ve got my answer,” his cousin Merle responded laughing.


John felt the touch of Lauren’s hand on his back and her hair brushed his cheek as she leaned in to whisper in his ear, “I’m not pregnant. My stomach hurts. Let’s leave.”


A wave of relief washed over John. He stood up from his chair and wondered how much stock to take in his jubilant response to discovering he was not a father.“I’ll let Aunt Jenny know,” he said softly to Lauren.


“Sorry all, Lauren hasn’t been feeling well. We’ll have to be leaving,” he said quietly to his neighbours at the table.


They responded with a general display of regret and well-wishing.


John walked to his Aunt Jenny and laid a hand on her shoulder. “I’m sorry, Aunt Jenny. Lauren is feeling unwell, and I think we need to head home for the night.”


His Aunt grasped his hand and smiled at him, “Could that mean anything?”


“No,” he replied softly, and he deeply wanted a child.


Brent Holmes from USA lives to imagine, grasping at all the what-ifs that flitter through his mind and weaving them into stories. Brent’s work has appeared in LKN Connect and Bell Tower Magazine and will soon appear in Fumble. Along with writing fiction, Brent has written five papers in research mathematics.


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