March 6, 2010


We wake together, steeped in skin. Cassie rises and walks naked to the window, her legs barely plump, just enough to curve nicely. She lays her palm against the frosted window, peering through the U’s of her fingers. I can barely see through the glass, but the tree outside glistens with last night’s rain.

“Gregory, we shouldn’t have sex anyway. What if I get pregnant, and put more people into the world like me?” Cassie turns to stare at her dried-out spider plant. “And then what happens when I do want children? What if I get a seizure and miscarry?”

This is our third week straight together, and we’ve been bickering most of the time. Our last vacation together was such a disaster we decided to take the illogical step of living together over winter break. Cassie’s roommate is out of town. We argued about whose place we were going to use. Cassie hated my dark room, the fact that my roommates left their underpants in the hall. Most importantly, Cassie’s shower had the movable nozzle.

“Cassie, that’s stupid. You won’t miscarry.” It’s a lame reply, but I don’t know what else to say.

“Gregory, I know how you want to be a father someday.” Cassie picks at the end of the leaf. She hasn’t watered the plant in weeks, and its thin stems are kinked like old wire.

I sit up in bed.

“Anyway, you think it’s gross.”

“No, Cassie, I don’t think it’s gross.”

“You do, you never touch me—you don’t even like to French kiss.”

I stare at my feet, shaking off the din of this morning. My head echoes with a documentary we watched last night on channel nine, the one about the tarantula verses the wasp. First the wasp paralyzed the tarantula and dragged it to her den. Then it lay a bunch of eggs which slowly fed on the spider’s living body. So I guess the wasp won. Then I remember Cassie giggling and sliding on top of me, drawing the sheets tightly around us, in a cocoon. Her lips tingled across my side. I felt her legs spread, her body slide down, thighs and wetness searching my body.

“Since when?”

“Since this morning. I tried to have sex with you and you couldn’t even get an erection.” I wince. I hate it how casually graphic she gets about sex. Then again, pretty much anything having to do with sex makes me squeamish or just plain turns me off.

“And that’s the key word, Gregory, tried. The girl isn’t the one who’s supposed to try. I shouldn’t even be using “try” and “sex” in the same sentence.”

“Well, you could use them in separate sentences,” I offer.

“Fuck you.”

I swing my legs onto the floor, my mind scrambling for words: Cassie someday touching your water will feel as beautiful as milk skin, egg shell soft. Tell her this. Instead we are quiet, fighting.

I stare at the spider plant. If I really believed she were barren, would I be less afraid? Cassie has tried everything. Maybe her epilepsy could work in her favor, for once. Just last week we tried having sex without a condom. It was right after she finished her period and Cassie assured me it was safe. It didn’t go well. Was I repulsed by the thought of blood or just worried about pregnancy? I had an older roommate once who told me how he sacrificed his twenties to help raise a child who now refuses to speak to him. I have heard that some women will lie and say they don’t want children, just to keep their boyfriends from running off. How many men harbor a secret fear of sex, of being stuck into a soft place where lives are held fast and children pushed out.

There have been other women who didn’t frighten me quite the way Cassie does.

In Assisi, when I explored Sasha with my finger, I was surprised by the depth and smoothness, how she dipped down like a water cove. But she did not want me in her future—her arms spread wide as she bent and coiled over me, her head turned upwards toward our rolling shadows. Who was the man she dreamed of beneath her? A muscled Poseidon who fucked her against urinals and on the bare backs of horses. Who do I dream of, and why can’t I make Cassie into that dream?

Ironically, Sasha had a dryness that repulsed me. She had a sort of hide—breasts that didn’t react at all when caressed, it was like trying to arouse a cow’s udder. “Aren’t they supposed to be doing something?” I twirled my finger around the bud of her nipple.

She shrugged. “Yeah, I know what you mean. Lots of girls say it feels good, but being touched there never really had an effect on me.”

Cassie walks to the closet and picks a bra from a pile of laundry. When she moves her skin shimmers under her long hair. Cassie wouldn’t believe me if I told her that her skin reminded me of the fountain downtown with its serene, thin waterfall. On warm days I touch its surface, parting the gentle cascade into a diamond crevice. I wouldn’t blame her, since I can only dream of Cassie’s translucence from a distance. Sometimes I try with a finger against her lips, and for the smallest instant there is desire, a heat which flickers across the top of my hand.
“Why don’t we move, Cass? We could do it this summer. I mean maybe we’d get along better if we just lived somewhere else. How about New Mexico? I’m tired of Berkeley. My Dad owns some property down there. You could finish up school there. ”

“But the hot weather.” She slides her arms into the loops of her bra. “I’d get seizures.” When I am in such places all the sweat leaves my body. I wonder if the high desert winds would somehow balance the wetness of sex. In the Southwest my clothes feel loose and nothing clings to my skin. Dirt and dust run off my skin like flour. It’s a strange solution, to somehow dry it all out, as though I could evaporate my nightmares of drowning, of sinking into sex. No wonder she thinks she is barren, a mud cracked shore. No wonder she worries about us. Who would want to spend her precious years with a man who winces before he takes her to bed? What are the chances of my becoming wealthy enough to support a family, what are the chances of that I will overcome my neurosis? How can I expect her to roll the dice and come up with such a matching pair? But isn’t it always this way, aren’t there always risks in relationships that run this deep? We push off from port together, hoisting flimsy sails with untrained hands, heading out towards open ocean in the hope beyond hope that we will never be destroyed.

Cassie spends the rest of the afternoon napping. It’s what she does when she’s upset. She’s been sleeping a lot lately. Am I just letting this thing go? We are both sleeping, waiting for winter break to be over so everyone can cut their losses and go home. I watch her slim belly rise and fall. Inside her is what slips over my fingers, what I dread: her cave secret, flesh seed, a closeness saturated by breath-hair and porous skin, an intimacy without escape. Cassie kicks from under the sheets, as if running in a dream. Or maybe it’s a seizure, which often come when she becomes hot or dehydrated, when she wakes with a husk throat and crusted lips. I dip my finger in a glass and wipe a clear mark across the hot skin of her forehead. I kiss her neck, her belly. I stay up for hours sometimes, tending to her during these attacks, holding her as she reels through consciousness. The water cools her. Her legs stop moving. I slide into the loose sheets, cradling her warm waist. In her half sleep she moves closer to me, murmuring through breath as our bodies sink together like warm sand.

“Damnit…” I hear her whisper. She rocks back and forth, slapping at the mattress, at the wall. “Damnit…shit damn.”

“Shhhhh….Casssie….just a small seizure.” I sprinkle water over her, over her face, neck and hair, hoping the coolness will soothe her.


“You need water again?”

“Seeds on the rock.”


She is quoting Jesus. Sometimes she talks in her sleep when she is delirious like this. “We are mustard seeds. On the rock.”

“Cassie, are you thirsty? Why mustard seeds?”

“On the rock. They won’t grow on the rock.” She makes a sharp sound, jerking away from me as I wipe a damp towel across her belly. Maybe I am not the only one who fears being caught. I have marooned Cassie in a desert place, trapped her in a dying relationship. I run my fingers over her powdery skin, over the dip of her lower back and beneath her round, dry lobes. She makes a small sound. I move closer, thirsty for closeness. If she wakes will I recoil? With Sasha this had been so easy. She would lie out on the side of the pool when we had sex, her large breasts bouncing while she picked petals off a daisy.

I am in the bathroom when I hear a crash—I rush in to find Cassie curled up on the floor, clutching the broken plant like a pillow, a tangle of dark hair in her fist. I sit her up, pulling leaves out of her hair, wiping dirt from her lips.

“Cassie…Cassie…” She looks at me, her head moving, bubble-eyed. She looks at the smashed pot and then sways towards me.

“I broke it.”

“You had another seizure.”

“My whole throat feels like hot gravel.”

“Just a seizure.”


“Just another seizure Cassie…”

“Gregory, I’ve been getting stomach aches.”

She lets the words hang in the air, gathering meaning.

All night she lays curled in bed, her face in pillows. I bring her water, milk. She won’t eat, drink.

“I will kill it I will kill it.”

I hold Cassie’s hands, say over and over again that it doesn’t matter, that I will mix a white powder into water for her to drink so the baby can come without being harmed by a seizure. I tell myself that the pain in her stomach is a subconscious expression, her body rejecting a doomed relationship, our still-born years together. It is six in the morning when I drive to the grocery store. I don’t even wear shoes: my bare feet thudding against the icy linoleum of Safeway. I slap the test on the counter. I don’t care who is staring, what they have known or are reminded of. The woman next to me bustles up her groceries and leaves in a hurry. I see myself wearing the same red apron as the grim employee who sweeps my item across the dark glass. I am too young for this snare, made to work days and nights so I can support a family. If the little red dot shows up instead of the little blue dot, will she have an abortion? I could never ask her to do that: scraped flesh wall, life sucked out, red pulp. Cassie screaming.

“I don’t know, I just don’t want to know.”

We sit across from each other, the little white stick on the table between us.

“It will just take a second. All you have to do is pee on it.”

“I don’t have to pee right now.

“Well drink a bunch of water and then pee.”

“I’m not thirsty.”



“There wasn’t even a question mark on the end of that. So you must know damn well what.”


Cassie sinks to the bed, slowly gathering a sheet to her chest, cuddling it.

“Yes, Cassie?”


Soon she has the entire top and bottom sheets clutched to her chest in a big wrinkled ball.

“What is it, Cassie.”

“Can we take a shower?”

In the shower Cassie begins to soap up her hair. I stare at her belly Isn’t there a pill she can take? Maybe it will—I’ve heard that ninety-nine percent of all first pregnancies are unsuccessful. I look down, watching for the lines of blood to spread down her leg. I would crouch, smearing my finger through the red branches. Then dancing, hugging, red relief splashing against the tiled walls. And then what? Difficulty again. Her needs again. She needs our breath to shudder out, our sighs to tumble like merging floods, of rivers emptying into each other. In the shower, I squat, my head against wet tile, breathing steam, my thumbs squeezing into my eyes. It’s too much, too dark. We are tumbling, our lives mixed together in blind, chaotic water.

Then I stay in the quiet, crouched, immersed. Fist, a white line uncurls. One of its ends glitters, a light leading a wriggling, translucent body, the birth of a new idea. What if I want her to be pregnant? What if I will welcome the future, open the door and let it step through with its brilliant pearled legs and crested feet.

Back in our room I light a candle while Cassie dries off. I’m lying down when I hear the toilet flush. The bathroom door opens and Cassie crosses the room, stopping to place something down with a soft tap before sliding into bed. I rise to pinch out the flame. I find her hand. We are wide awake. Just inches from us the pale strip of plastic lies on the darkened bedside table.

Benjamin Russack has a BA in English at UC Berkeley, MFA in Creative Writing from Saint Mary’s, MA in psychology. I’m currently working at a rehabilitation center in Sausalito where I have yet to become a patient. Check him out at

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