Choose Your Own

Paul Crenshaw


Michael and Sarah are having a tough time. After seven years of marriage, they have grown apart. Both of them realize it, but they haven’t talked about it. They walk around each other like they are furniture. They speak in simple sentences and eat in silence, watching TV in the kitchen with the sound off. Michael, who has always played poker with his friends on Friday nights, did not tell Sarah when everyone quit playing a few months ago. Instead, he started going to a bar near the house. He sits on the bar patio and drinks Maker’s Mark and smokes, even though he quit smoking years ago. When Michael gets home Sarah is asleep. He washes off the smell of smoke and whiskey, then climbs into bed and can’t sleep. Headlights from passing cars sweep the wall. At three o’clock he is still awake. One night, lying there in the bedroom with the noises of the city faint around him, he makes a decision. In the morning he will tell her.

If you want his decision to be that they get a divorce, go to page six.

If you want his decision to be that they stay together but try to find a new spark in their relationship by traveling to a foreign country, go to page nineteen.

If you need more information before deciding, go to page nine.

If you want Michael and Sarah to be Michael and Steve, or Susan and Sarah, go to page eight.


PAGE SIX—THE MORNING AFTER

In the morning he tells her he wants a divorce. She is buttering toast, rushing to get to work. She is wearing a black shirt with a high neck and a pearl necklace and black slacks and high heels and those earrings he’s always liked. He has not slept or shaved. She stops buttering. The toast falls to the floor. She says, “What?”

Looking at her, buttered toast stuck to the floor by her right foot, he thinks how beautiful she is, but whatever has been eating at him for the last few months, or maybe years, whatever lethargy or indifference or not-love, is too strong to be overcome by her beauty. “Divorce,” he says, and his voice does not sound like his own. It does not sound like a man who is thirty years old talking to his wife who is slightly younger, and beautiful. “I want one.”

She picks up the toast and throws it in the sink. She sits at the table, looking at him. He thinks she is going to cry. (If you want her to cry, you have no heart, so I will not tell you which page to go to. Just pretend she does. Pretends she weeps silently at the table and after a long time he reaches over and takes her hand. She looks up at him and says . . .)

“I have to go to work,” she says.

He stands up. She is wiping the tears from her eyes or not wiping the tears from her eyes. Your choice. “I do too,” he says.

“Talk when we get home?”

He nods his head.

If you want them both to have miserable days at work, go to page ten.


PAGE EIGHT—MICHAEL AND STEVE, SUSAN AND SARAH

It doesn’t matter what we call them. If you want it to be two men or two women, go ahead. The reactions will only change slightly. This isn’t about gender or sexual orientation. My ex-wife once told me she was attracted to women sometimes. I told her she could look but not lick. She didn’t laugh, she didn’t even roll her eyes, though I had meant it as a joke. Come to think of it, that’s when I first noticed something was wrong. Not when she said she liked women, but when she quit laughing at my jokes.

Anyway, guys, girls, it doesn’t matter. Everyone has problems.


PAGE NINE—WHAT WE HAVEN’T SAID.

The past. How they came to be together in the first place. We’re going to need some background. I’ll use my own, just to make it seem more believable.

They met in college, his junior year. She was a little drunk, hip-shot, blood-eyed, maybe high. She forgot to lock the bathroom door, and he walked in on her and immediately turned around and walked out, and when she came out he thought she would walk on by without looking but he mumbled “I’m sorry,” and she said “No, it was my fault, I didn’t lock the door,” and they kept talking. Late that night, almost dawn, she was sobering up but she went down on him and he came in her mouth and for days all he could think of was that. He was a little ashamed, for him, for her. He didn’t want to start a relationship that way. Even though it was the nineties, you weren’t supposed to marry a girl who slept with you on the first date, but he rationalized that they didn’t fuck.

Two years later they were married. He got a job after college and she finished a year later and they did the whole thing, got jobs, bought a house, sat up late at night swirling wine in their glasses listening to jazz music and sometimes fucking on the couch.

Enter time, a long stretch of it like a straight road where everything is fine, trees going by, golden fields, and then suddenly you are not noticing the car drifting. Maybe he drank too much. Maybe she worked late. Or vice versa. Whatever. He spent more time in the garage or the basement or the bar. She stopped caring if he came home late, wanted him to come home late. Her vibrator worked better anyway, she told herself, laughing so she wouldn’t cry. When he came home from poker he didn’t smell like another woman and that was a relief but he stopped crawling into bed with her and kissing her neck even if she was asleep. He started watching TV on the couch.

One night he came home and lay in bed staring at the ceiling. She was pretending to sleep, listening to him breathe, wondering what had happened to them, where the time had gone, why she sometimes cried late at night, if this was all there is, if the one person who is supposed to complete you really doesn’t know you at all and you are utterly alone in all the world no matter how close you draw him in, no matter how much of his air you breathe.

In the morning he told her he wanted a divorce.

If you want them to go through a long and bitter divorce, go to page fourteen. 

If you want to see the next few days after he tells her he wants a divorce, go to page eleven.

If you want her to set him on fire while he is asleep, go to page fifteen.


PAGE TEN—MISERABLE DAY AT WORK

They both have miserable days at work. Sarah goes to the restroom several times. She locks the stall and sits on the toilet with her pants up and cries into her hands. Her co-workers notice that something is wrong but are afraid to ask, except for one guy you may or may not read about later. Let’s say she works in a big office building with long rows of desks and fluorescent lights overhead that occasionally flicker. When she is not crying Sarah sits at her computer and stares at numbers that make no sense.

Michael drags himself through the morning. He has not slept and all day he thinks of Sarah. Over a three-martini lunch he fears he has made a terrible mistake, which causes him to have three more. (If you want it to be a terrible mistake, go to page nineteen).

If you want Michael to be fired for coming back to work drunk, or to get arrested for DUI on his way home, then you are just mean and you don’t like Michael. I can understand that. But I’ve grown attached to him and Sarah. They remind me of my ex-wife and me, except I don’t know how this one is going to end. Will they stay together? Will they get a divorce? I’m not sure we’ve looked at all the underlying causes here. Maybe there are things we don’t know about. Maybe there are other circumstances. Maybe they were never really right for each other in the first place and it’s a miracle they stayed together seven years. Maybe the past plays a part in the future. Maybe Sarah has been fucking one of the guys in her office and has fallen in love with him, although our description of their relationship doesn’t seem very romantic. If you like, instead of her fucking him, make it that he is a kind, caring guy, who always has a nice word for her, like on the day she came in crying when Michael told her she wanted a divorce, or the day she miscarried a few years ago and he caught her crying in the break room and he hugged her and rubbed the small of her back and listened to her, really listened to her, unlike Michael sometimes when he is watching college football or re-runs of NYPD Blue. Maybe it’s her fault. If you want it to be her fault, go to page thirteen.


PAGE ELEVEN—NOTHING IMMEDIATE

They talk in the evening without coming to a conclusion. Mostly they cry and yell at each other and apologize and come together and break apart. He says “I don’t know what to do anymore,” and she says “Don’t you love me?” and he says “Yes, but it’s more complicated than that,” and she is forced to agree. They sit in the same room not looking at each other until they realize they can see the first gray light of dawn out the window. She goes upstairs and goes to bed. He sleeps on the couch. When he wakes late in the afternoon she is coming down the stairs. He says hello like he is talking to a stranger. She nods.

They live in the house ignoring each other for a few days. She watches TV in bed, not seeing the TV, her feet tucked under her, crying without realizing it. He putters around in the garage, looking at projects he has started but never finished.

If you want them to suddenly realize they were meant to be together, go to page nineteen.

If you want a long and bitter divorce, go to page fourteen.


PAGE THIRTEEN—FOR THOSE WHO THINK IT IS SARAH’S FAULT

I can assure you it is not. Trust me on this one. I’m writing the story. I’m trying to lead you in the right direction, even though I don’t know what the right direction is. If I did I might still be married, might still lie beside my ex-wife late at night watching the car headlights sweep the wall, unable to sleep. But I’m writing this, and it’s not Sarah’s fault. She doesn’t fuck the man at work. She doesn’t drink too much. She doesn’t have any faults, though maybe she was complicit in the drifting apart. I’m not even going to use a full page for this one. You have to trust me—it’s not her fault. Maybe it isn’t all his, but it’s not hers. I know.


PAGE FOURTEEN—LONG AND BITTER DIVORCE

She doesn’t throw all his clothes out the window. Instead she carefully packs them all, then spends one hundred seventy dollars mailing the boxes to a town in Idaho that she picked by closing her eyes and stabbing at a map with her index finger. In the garage she sprays all his tools with water, then turns on the little floor heater he keeps in there. The windows fog over and his tools rust. The shelves he built buckle in the heat.

Michael moves into a cheap motel by the interstate. At night he sits in a lawn chair in front of his room and smokes and watches cars pass on the interstate. Or he walks across the condom-strewn parking lot to the little bar and sits curled on a stool like a question mark and watches the truckers talking to cheap hookers and drinks just enough to believe they are in love.

He takes to driving by the house late at night, a pint of whiskey between his legs, scanning his three mirrors for blue lights. He wonders what he would do if there were a car parked in the drive, if he saw two shadows in the bedroom window. One night he hurls the whisky bottle at the window but it slips from his hands and lands on the roof with an unsatisfying thump. He trips when he throws the bottle and lays in the road, drunk, crying a little, laughing. A light comes on in the house and she peers out the window but when she sees him in the middle of the road she turns the light off.

She hires a lawyer known as the Terminator. The Terminator sends threatening letters, which Michael throws away. He gets red for drinking too much. The motel owner bangs on his door. One night he turns on the hot water and fills the tub all the way.

Sarah starts going to clubs with some friends from work. They are all a few years younger than her and they snort coke in the bathroom. One night she snorts a line. She tells herself she is only thirty. Later she sucks a guy off in his car in the parking lot. She doesn’t even know his name. When she finishes she realizes people are gathered around the car watching. The man hands her a napkin. She goes back the next weekend without her friends. She tells herself she is finally living a little but when the guy she ends up with cums on her face she realizes why she has never lived a little before. She drives home hazed with self-pity beneath the distant lights of stars.

If you want her to crash on the way home, or Michael to never get out of the bathtub in the sleazy motel room, I can’t do anything for you. That’s not the way I want it to end. Go to page nineteen.


PAGE FIFTEEN—YOU DON’T WANT TO DO THIS

I’m going to have to talk you out of this one. You don’t really want Sarah to set Michael on fire. That’s crazy. Michael is going through a tough time. He’s not really a bad guy. Some nights he simply stands out in the backyard and watches the stars spin in the heavens and wonders about his place on earth. It’s easy to grow apart from someone. Like my ex-wife. I wish she were still here. I wish I could call her. But I can’t. I don’t even know where she lives anymore. There are thousands of cities in our country, and hundreds of thousands in the world. Too many possibilities, too many equations. Even trying to figure them all out makes the stars spin.

But if you really want Sarah to set Michael on fire, maybe he deserves it. Go to page sixteen.


PAGE SIXTEEN—THE BURNING BED

Sarah waits until Michael is asleep then goes out to the garage and gets the gas can and comes back in and pours gas gently over him while he sleeps. He wakes up just before she lights the match, but he is groggy and squints his eyes at her and says “Wha? Huh?” Only when the flames start eating at him does he comprehend. Or maybe he doesn’t. He does scream a lot. Sarah has already packed her bags and after lighting the  re she walks out the door and gets in the car and drives away, so she doesn’t hear him scream. The fire destroys the house and everything they owned together. It also jumps to the neighbor’s house and kills their cat and two parakeets named Cindy and Mindy. (The owners, a middle-aged couple who have been married thirty-four years and who bought the parakeets for their grandchildren, had gone to Atlantic City for the weekend, where they won almost sixty dollars playing Keno, so instead of driving home they rented a cheap motel room by the interstate, where the wind from passing semi-trucks sucked at their door while they lay in bed almost touching).

Sarah is arrested before she gets out of the state. She is sentenced to ten years.

Strangely enough, Michael survives. He runs out of the house on fire and jumps into the pool. But he is badly burned and it will take him years to get over the pain of what she has done to him. When he does, he calls her. She has just been released from prison, and they take a trip together to Sioux City, Iowa.


PAGE SEVENTEEN—A NOTE

You’ll probably notice I have skipped a few pages in here. Fill them in with whatever you want. Take the day-to-day stuff. What happens before whatever else happens happens. The middle ground. Everyday life. Opening refrigerator doors. Washing dishes. Carrying loads of laundry down to the basement. Driving to work. Have our characters do these things together, or separately. The little things are what matter. Maybe you can find what caused the trouble in the first place, although that depends on which pages you have turned to, which choices you have made. Your answers say a lot about you.

If you don’t like any of the choices, go to page eighteen.


PAGE EIGHTEEN—OTHER POSSIBILITIES

Sarah leaves Michael, quits her job, becomes a porn star. Or a famous writer. A politician. She becomes the first woman to walk on Mars. Or she stays with him and they have seventeen beautiful children, one of whom grows up to be the President of the United States. He or she ends hunger and war and the world enters a time of prosperity such as it has never seen. This is, of course, until the Martians invade in retaliation for when Sarah walked on their planet.

Another: Michael comes homes and tells Sarah he doesn’t want a divorce, but she has spent the day thinking how happy she is to be finally ending this marriage. She thinks how in their years together they have grown apart and how at some point she stopped loving him. She moves to Texas and starts a singing/songwriting career. After she leaves, Michael is warned by his boss that he is drinking too much. He stops at the liquor store every day on his way home and buys a fifth of vodka and a six-pack of beer. He sits on the floor, leaning against the wall because Sarah took all the furniture. He has Sarah’s first CD and he listens to it again and again as the shadows creep across the floor and night comes on. There are no songs about love reunited, only broken hearts.

Or there is a song about love reunited. Let’s call it “Love Reunited.” When Michael hears it he calls and tries to get in touch with Sarah. It takes him a while, calling various mutual friends, whom he assures that he is not drunk, and finally gets through. When she says hello he waits for so long she says hello again. Then he asks her if the song was about him. I don’t know what she says.

If you want her answer to be no, go back to page fourteen. If you end up here again, keep going back. Do it until you understand, until you reach the end. That’s what is always important—how it ends. We can talk about choices all day, but we have to know, don’t we?

If you want her answer to be yes, keep reading.


PAGE NINETEEN—A TERRIBLE MISTAKE

Michael realizes he made a terrible mistake. It doesn’t have to be the next day. Maybe it is months later, after he has been living alone in the big house and she has been staying with her parents. Maybe they run into each other in the grocery store. Maybe he heard her number-one single “Love Reunited” on the radio. Maybe he wrote her a letter or called her late at night. Maybe it took a while. These things don’t happen all at once. But sometimes they do happen. Sometimes everything works out fine. Let’s hope this does.

When he comes home she is sitting at the kitchen table. He drags a chair close to her and takes her hand in both of his. Both of them cry. He tells her he doesn’t want a divorce. He says he loves her. But sometimes he loses sight of what’s in front of him. We all do this. Even if you hate Michael at this point, or Sarah, if you’ve chosen the path that makes it her fault, you have to understand how strange and complex this thing is. This story, this life. Whatever it is we are talking about here.

Anyway, they talk long into the night. Near dawn they go upstairs and though they are both exhausted they make love slowly and passionately. When they are finished they lie together, almost touching, the heat of their bodies overlapping. When dawn comes they are making plans to travel, to go someplace they have never been before. Both of them are excited about what lies ahead of them, although they both realize there are still troubled waters to navigate, rivers to cross, rough seas. Maybe they can work things out. I wish I could work things out with my wife. But it’s been so long now I wouldn’t even know what to say. Maybe you can help.

If you want things to work out, skip the next paragraph. If you enjoy being unhappy, like my ex-wife says I do, then read the next paragraph but not the last one. 

If you want them to travel to the Falkland Islands, go to page twenty. But I can tell you that you don’t want them to go to the Falkland Islands, or any other exotic destination. One of them will get hit by a bus. The only reason to look is to see which one of them got hit, and that won’t make you feel any better. Seriously. I know. It would be like placing blame. It would be like choosing who was right and who was wrong, wouldn’t it? I’m not even going to write that part. It’s okay to look ahead while keeping your finger marking the page you are on now, so in case you made the wrong decision you can go back. We all do that. But you can’t really do that now, can you? Not really.

If you want them to travel to Sioux City, Iowa, just imagine two people stuck in a snowstorm in a small motel near the interstate, close enough to the road that every passing semi-truck sucks the air from the room and rattles the door in the frame like something trying to get in. The rest of the scene is up to you as well. Do they lie together in the light of the snowy TV, her head on his chest, one of them laughing occasionally about the circumstances that have brought them here? Does Michael rise gently from the bed after she falls asleep and stand outside the hotel room watching the snow fall and wondering how they will ever get back to where they were? Does Sarah wake to find him gone, or does she just dream? And, if so, what does she dream?