Sex was different when you had to. He had to. One morning she said, “There’s mucus.”
He was in bed, still waking up. “You’re sick?” Through the crenelated elephant trunk of the CPAP mask, his voice was vapor.
“Down there. My book says morning is the ideal time. Your testosterone levels are their highest. Your sperm have had a chance to regroup.”
He removed his mask, his face striped red, to get ready.
“Is mucus the right word?” he said. “It’s kind of gross.”
They had sex that morning and again that evening. All the while, his CPAP machine chugged on the night table. He enjoyed himself. It had been a while. She, on the other hand, was all business. When they were done, she pulled her knees into her chest, and had him put clary sage oil on her belly. Her stomach had sagged a little since their marriage.
She read books, and before bed, drank a special tea. Mugwort was now a word he knew. They had a special wedge pillow, his-and-her thermometers. He also read her books.
The next day they had sex once, and quickly. He had a work call. He was moving up in the company. Men above him had only good things to say. He was a team player, they said.
The next day he had trouble performing.
“Do you want me on top?” she said.
“Maybe if you talk to me?”
“Talk to you? Like dirty talk? What do you want me to say?”
“I don’t know. If I tell you what to say, it won’t be sexy. It’ll be like me talking to myself.”
“You masturbate,” she said. “That’s you having sex with yourself.”
When they were done, he lay there silently. His CPAP machine blinked on the night table.
The next day they had to stop. He’d been thinking about college. Back then, they did it anywhere, anytime. She was on the pill, but he’d buy condoms, just in case. Sex was magical, dangerous, never the same. Like good art, it existed only for itself. It meant what they wanted it to mean, and they did it because they wanted to.
The next day he wasn’t proud of himself. He imagined an ex from high school. She wasn’t half the person his wife was, but, sexually, she was all-knowing. She never made Honor Roll, but she knew what he wanted before he did. She was small in ways his wife would never be. Once at the municipal pool, she took him, dripping wet, behind the ice cream truck. That morning his wife noticed a big difference. She asked what had changed; he lied, of course. He was a team player. He said he’d followed one of the “Tips for Men” in her fertility book.
The last day he imagined Carmen again. They were in the back seat of his Jeep. It was the summer before he’d go to college and meet his wife. Carmen was staying in town to tend bar. They’d try long-distance. His wife was pleased but, afterward, contrite. She stood in front of their bedroom mirror, looking at her eyes and breasts and hair and stomach. Everything was reversed. She touched a stretch mark. It was darker in the mirror.
“Do you think we’re doing the right thing?” she said.
“I won’t know whether it’s the right thing until we’ve done it,” she said, “and by then, it’s too late. Nothing scares me more than having a kid and realizing I shouldn’t have.”
“You don’t think we should?”
“I don’t want to be my parents,” she said. “I wonder if all this stress is why I’m not getting pregnant. My mom was fertile because it never crossed her mind that she shouldn’t be a mother.”
“I don’t think it works like that.”
“It’s in the book,” she said. “Did we wait too long?”
“It could be me,” he said. “I smoked weed in high school.”
“You did a lot of stupid shit in high school.”
The next month, she went to the bathroom to pee and shower, and was in there for a long time, testing. He called to her. She didn’t answer. He listened, waited. He heard the shower stop. He heard crying, drawers opening and closing. What kind of crying was it? He heard his own labored breathing.
The door opened.
She walked back into their bedroom, got in bed with the test and covered herself. He joined her in his work clothes.
“Well?” he said.
Stephen Cicirelli has his MFA from Columbia University. He is currently a full-time lecturer in the English Department at Saint Peter’s University. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in The Brooklyn Rail, Quick Fiction, Eunoia Review, Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine, 100 Word Story, and the anthology Nothing Short Of (Outpost19 Press). He and his partner currently live in New Jersey. Read more at www.cicirelliwrites.com. Follow him on Twitter @SteveCicirelli and on Instagram @stephen_cicirelli.