“It’s a cabbit.” He wiggles his fingers through the grille of the hard plastic kennel. He is John or Tim, or maybe Jim: some name that means random white guy at a Midwestern college.
It’s not that I don’t care. I just can’t quite remember.
Through one of the air holes, I glimpse something that swirls, dark and shining, like a galaxy. It speaks of hidden places—but when Jim pulls the furry body into the light, all I can think is soft and long. Soft, long ears. A curling cat’s tail.
“Here.” He pushes it toward me. Its legs flop like a teddy bear’s.
My fingers curl around the cabbit’s (soft, long) body. Even its weight is an in-between: heavier than a dictionary, lighter than my anatomy textbook. “What’s her, um, its name?” I don’t want him to think I’m obsessed with gendering the non-human.
He rolls his eyes. “Cabbits aren’t like that.”
“Oh.” I look down at this soft, long thing, curled up in my palms like a velvet secret. Rabbits are obligate herbivores; cats, obligate carnivores. A true cat-rabbit hybrid can’t exist, which means this “cabbit” is one or the other.
I wonder if rich people do cosmetic surgeries on animals. “Where’d you get it?”
His eyebrows rise; I’ve asked the wrong question. He puts the cabbit back in its kennel. It feels like a punishment.
• • • •
The RAs check bags for contraband. When Jim first moved in, he broke the lock on his bathroom window so people could toss things up. He makes cash by taking orders, mostly weed and booze.
We pass the day on our backs, drinking wine while listening to Bob Dylan on vinyl, which he assures me is better than digital.
I’ve never done something like this, at once leisurely and pretentious. The entire afternoon, I shift on the carpet as if scratching an itch. Each time he passes the bottle to me, I sit up, unwilling to risk staining my shirt.
He crawls to the mattress in the corner. He dozes off, ignoring me, but it feels like the windows have all been opened, the room allowed to breathe. I no longer worry I’ll violate some unspoken rule and render myself unattractive. I can bask in his presence without fear, can press myself close enough to smell laundry softener and wine and skin. I can adore the way the sunlight plays on his golden ringlets—I’ve never dated a man with long hair before.
I’m grateful for this moment. My nipping and tucking and shaving and painting all seem worthwhile.
An hour passes. He makes signs that he’ll awaken soon: shuffling, throaty grunts and groans. I retreat so he won’t think I’m crazy, but now I’m back to being unsure of where to stand, of what to do with my hands.
The cabbit scratches in its kennel. I cross the room. The latch on the grille requires more dexterity than it should.
“Hello.” I hold my fingers by the open door and wait, and the cabbit approaches, the end of its nose twitching. Its fur is soft and tingles under my skin.
“I’ll give you something you can pet,” Jim—it’s Jim, I’m sure it’s Jim—says from the bed. His voice is gravelly with sleep and arousal, and this, too, is a relief.
I take his already stiff penis in my hand, glad to have a task I know how to perform.
• • • •
When we’re done, I creep to the bathroom and spit his semen in the sink. I don’t turn on the light. I hate looking at cum, and Jim’s mirror makes me look fat.
Some of the other floors have one giant communal bathroom. I imagine walking down the hallway, mouth full, and feel sick.
From his room come soft snaps, like someone breaking the ends off fat green beans.
• • • •
When I come back, Jim’s moved the kennel to the mattress. He lays next to it like a lover and pushes a small, clear circle toward its open door—a petri dish. He took it from my bag without asking.
I remind myself that I’m grateful.
The cabbit’s nose twitches. On the dish are a number of motionless white crescents, slivers that look like maggots.
A bell rings in my head. They’re fingernails. This is cruel, but I’m only surprised by my lack of surprise. “What are you doing?”
He shushes me with a finger. “You’ll scare it,” he whispers. He taps the dish, and the cabbit edges out of the cage a few inches. “Cabbits are special. They eat the parts you don’t want anymore. Hair, fingernails. That kind of thing.”
I look from the soft, long cabbit to the almost-empty petri dish, and something hot and bitter slides down my throat. I imagine feeding the cabbit the wine stains from his shirt.
“I’m going to be late for class.” I grab my bag and push my way out the door.
• • • •
In high school, a parade of incensed teachers lectured us about how much harder college would be—but throughout my freshman year, it’s felt like the professors think we’re incapable of learning. When new knowledge is hidden better than a stone in the mud, it’s a herculean task to focus.
Nobody does the reading. I do the reading for two months. I stop when it becomes clear I’m punishing myself.
I remember my mother, glaring at me as I practiced my multiplication tables.
My professor drones on about the Krebs cycle, the conversion of pyruvate into Acetyl-CoA. The classroom is so hot, I’m sweating.
I think about Jim. If I hurry back after class, I can beat him to his room. I don’t have a key, but he never locks his door. This is so arrogant it steals my breath away, so brave it makes me love him more. I long to drink of the magic that has protected him all this time.
I’ll arrange myself on the bed for his return. Close my eyes and pretend to be an inviting angel in sleep, one that’s also sexy.
I imagine him coming home. He praises me for my beauty before ravaging me. I follow that as far as I dare, but then it starts to feel like hope, and I check back into the lecture.
Like a car in a traffic jam, we haven’t moved. Someone asks what “dehydrogenase” is, a question that was answered three days ago.
I think about the cabbit, the potential of an animal that eats the parts you no longer want. First, I think of hair: the disobedient fly-aways that stick out when I put my hair up, my over-bearing eyebrows, and really, all the hair on my body from the neck down.
But there are so many other things. I’d give the cabbit the way my heart sinks when I get a text and cannot interpret the meaning. I would give it the parts of me that are a bad daughter, that see my mother’s phone number on the caller ID and send it to voicemail.
Halfway through the lecture, I can’t take it anymore. I stand up and exit with the swift power-walk that means rushing to the bathroom. The professor doesn’t say anything.
• • • •
When I get to the cabbit, I pull out a frizzled hair, but I’m too scared to give it over. I arrange myself on the bed like an enticing meal for Jim’s return.
• • • •
I wake up. It feels like there’s a needle stuck in my chest.
It’s dark outside, and Jim isn’t here.
He could be studying at the library. Picking up supplies for a project. At the store, buying a textbook he forgot.
I don’t believe those things. Jim sometimes goes to class, but he never does homework. The closest he gets is typing terrible poems on his ancient typewriter—but then, I don’t understand poetry.
I wait, and wait, and wait, my stomach tightening like a thread around a nail, until scratch, scratch, the cabbit paws at its kennel.
Poor cabbit. I bring the kennel to the bed. My hands shake when I open the little door, but I manage. The cabbit shuffles out and butts its head into my belly, and something liquidy cools my center, before radiating outward.
I’ve never felt so calm before. It’s like someone reached inside me and pulled out a thorn. “Thank you,” I say to the cabbit.
And then I finally come up with a scheme that will work.
I cross the room and lock the door. Jim’s keys sit on the desk, next to the typewriter, which means this space is now safe.
I start with my body. My hands shake as I draw my palms up my legs. They’re freshly shaved, and yet, I can feel prickles of invisible hair falling off. The cabbit’s nose and mouth move, as if it’s chewing, despite there being nothing there.
I move my hands to my belly, my hips, my thighs. I give the cabbit the wings under my arms, the lumpy bit behind my knees. I don’t see the change as it happens—but the next time I look down, there’s a gap between my legs, and my belly is flat and smooth.
I’m overwhelmed with gratitude, with hope. I have so much to give the cabbit, but I’m also suddenly, impossibly tired. It’s hard work, remaking oneself.
“Thank you.” I pull the cabbit to me and inhale the smell of its fur, like cedar and old paper, before closing my eyes.
• • • •
I’m awakened by frantic hammering on the door.
“I’m coming!” It’s only when I’m reaching for the lock that I realize I’m still holding the cabbit. I shuffle the creature to one arm and turn the lock with the other hand.
The door flies open. I have to leap backwards to avoid its swing. With the cabbit in my arms, I can’t break my fall, and I land hard on my ass.
“Where is he?” Tom hollers. (Tom. That’s his name. I remember, now.)
I shove the cabbit at Tom. “I’m sorry,” I say. “I—”
Tom pulls himself down to my level, bringing his face inches from mine. “Where. Is. He?”
I suddenly understand. He thinks I’m cheating. “I don’t . . . there’s nobody,” I stammer. It feels like I’ve fallen through ice and into freezing water.
Tom throws open the bathroom door. He flings open the closet. He crouches to check under the bed.
When it’s clear that there’s nowhere else a person could hide, he sits. The desk chair screeches under his weight, the sound flaying my bare nerves.
The danger has passed. I don’t need to be afraid anymore. I should go to him, comfort him, but I can’t seem to move.
I feel it, then. The cool sensation radiates from my left arm into my body, melting through the limb. I sigh in relief as the cabbit works its magic, before setting the creature carefully on the bed. “Tom?”
He sags in the chair, as if his muscles have all disengaged, leaving nothing but his bones to prop him up. Still, I approach him as if he’s a cornered animal, circling around so he can see me, scuffing my feet to make some noise. “Talk to me, Tom.”
“I’m sorry.” His face looks rueful, as if this is all some terrible trick he’s played on himself. “I just . . . you know how I feel about you, right?”
My throat clenches. He has not said this word, love. Tom doesn’t believe in love—and I’m ashamed that I’ve doubted his feelings at times, despite knowing how hard it is for him to express himself.
I drag sandbags across my heart, shoring up my love for him.
“Just . . . tell me the truth,” he says. “Why’d you lock the door?” He glances at me, and I catch the spark there, a warning. Tread carefully.
I’m not afraid. No, thanks to the cabbit, I’m my best self. The lie unfurls like a revelation. “There was a guy following me after class. I got scared. I ran back and locked the door.”
His face relaxes, the spark snuffing out, and he looks back at the offending door. “I should kill him,” he says, real venom in his voice. “What’d he look like?”
Warmth blooms in my belly at this demonstration, but I still need to be careful. “I don’t know,” I say, hedging my bets. “I was too afraid to get a good look.”
His jaw tightens. Seconds go by before he nods. “Alright,” he says. “I understand.”
• • • •
I thought things between us were fixed, but I was wrong, because even though we’re laying in bed, the tension between us is as brittle as lake ice, and I don’t want to fall through again.
I pretend to sleep on my back. He is on his side, propped up on his arm. I can feel him staring, as if I’m some kind of puzzle to solve.
What if he decides he can’t forgive me? Or, worse, that he loves me too much, and that scares him?
There’s a cold pit in my stomach. I want to give it to the cabbit, but Tom put the animal back in its cage. Undoing his action would only make him mad again.
I calculate my move. It has to look natural.
I roll to my side. I pull back and push my ass into his stomach. My tailbone, bruised from the fall, twinges in a warning I ignore.
He tenses and says my name, but I concentrate on making my breath slow and even. I can feel him stiffening, as if his penis is siphoning energy from our contact.
Please, I think. I love you.
He inhales. His hand skims up my hip, before descending toward the junction of my legs.
Once, I would’ve shifted, to pretend to give him access, but my cabbit-slimmed thighs no longer crowd him out. He feels how warm I am and moans. He rubs himself against me. Only when he hikes up my leg and pushes himself inside do I pretend to awaken.
• • • •
The next day is Thursday, which means morning class for both of us. I want him to leave first, so I can feed the cabbit, but he’s watching me. Any change from the ordinary will make him suspicious again.
“I have to go.” I clutch my bag and kiss him on the mouth. He grabs my wrist as I turn away.
“Hey.” He looks me up and down. “I didn’t have a chance to tell you last night, but you look . . . different. Good. Really beautiful.”
I glow under his praise, even as I wave it away with my free hand. “I’m just me. Like I always am.”
As soon as I’m through the door, I pause in the hallway and take a deep, solid breath. “Thank you, cabbit,” I whisper.
I remain too long. The door handle jiggles, and I run away, quick and silent, like a cabbit streaking across a garden.
• • • •
I wait in some bushes until I see him exit the front door of the building, and then I steal back into his room—unlocked, as usual.
I can’t risk locking the door again, so I take the cabbit into the bathroom. I turn on the light, but it’s harsh on my eyes, and I can see myself in the mirror.
I flip it off. After my tailbone, my face will be the first thing I fix.
I enter the shower and pull the curtain, before gingerly sitting on the damp floor with the cabbit. I let it go. Its nose twitches as it observes me, and even in the dim light, I can tell it looks different—still soft, but no longer quite so long. It’s definitely fatter. How did I not notice as I was carrying it into the bathroom?
Sweat trickles down my back. What if cabbits can only eat so much, or only so often? Or what if Tom figures out it’s my fault his cabbit looks different?
I’ve been greedy, too greedy. I resolve to use the cabbit only for those things that are truly important.
I ask the cabbit to heal my tailbone—sex was excruciating last night—and then I make a list of goals in my head and organize them by priority.
I’m so absorbed, the click of the bathroom door opening catches me unaware.
I hold my breath, waiting for the light to shine through the thin shower curtain and expose me—but the door just shuts.
This was stupid. I creep to the door and rest my ear against it. Sounds echo from the other side, muffled as if underwater.
“Oh.” A woman’s moan.
This doesn’t mean anything. The door is unlocked. Everybody knows it. Some gross couple decided to use Tom’s dorm for sex. I should clean the bed. Maybe even replace the mattress.
She moans, louder, but there’s no thrusting. Her partner must be doing something else—fingering her, eating her out. I can’t help but find that exciting. I’ve never been able to submit to being eaten, not even when someone asks.
Some other time, I would’ve been tempted to touch myself—been tempted, but would not have indulged, I admonish, hoping it’s true—but right now, all I can think about is getting out of here.
She comes, and her orgasm isn’t like mine. There’s no show to it, nothing to make her partner feel special. It’s just a big sigh, the sound of a wave hitting the shore.
“Tell me how good it was.”
A male voice. I grab my throat.
“So good, Tom.” She laughs, a breathy, fluttering sound. “How do I taste?”
It feels like I’m dying, like my skin is peeling off. And then, my rage reaches the end of its track and turns inward. This is my punishment. If I’d only given that part of myself to Tom, he wouldn’t have gone somewhere else.
The sounds start, slap-slap-slap. I have to get out of this bathroom before they finish, before they clean up—but I’m paralyzed.
Something bumps my leg, and the cool feeling climbs up to my core, freeing my limbs. Exhaustion hits me like a wall.
I put the cabbit back in the shower and whisper to it to stay. I crawl out the window, jump to the bushes below. My ankle pops when I land. It’s fine, just another thing to give to the cabbit.
I can’t outrun my tiredness. I close my eyes.
• • • •
When I wake up, my ankle is the size of a melon. I stumble back into the dormitory and up to his room. It still smells like sex.
I should be hurt or jealous, but when I reach for the feelings, there’s just a numb ache. With the cabbit’s help, I can be the cool girl, the one that plays hard to get, the one that can offer her body without having to stake a claim.
I just don’t want to lose Tom.
I check the shower. The cabbit is still here. I ask it to heal my ankle before collapsing on the mattress.
• • • •
When Tom returns, I jump him. I crush my mouth into his, roam his body with my hands.
He shoves me away, suspicious.
I was too eager. “I’m sorry. I was just . . . thinking about that guy. I love that you want to protect me.”
He relaxes then, lets me kiss him, lets me tease him with my fingers and tongue. I guide him to the bed, glad to know he wants me.
It’s not until we’re both naked that the words leave my mouth, unanticipated. Unwanted. “Maybe you could go down on me.”
“I’d love to,” he says, smiling. “But I kind of have a headache.”
“Oh.” The air rushes out of me. Why her, and not me? The cabbit has taken my jealousy, but I can still feel abandoned, like something less. “Is it . . .” I can’t bring myself to ask if it’s my smell, my taste.
I checked before he got back. Put my fingers inside and smelled them before sucking on them. As far as I can tell, I don’t taste like anything.
“No, no.” He crushes his mouth over mine again. “I’m just so desperate to feel you. And besides—you’re not one of those girls, right?”
I shake my head, although the truth is, I don’t know what that means anymore.
• • • •
We make love, but my head is far away.
• • • •
When we’re done, he kisses me and makes his way to the shower. “I’ll get the water started.”
My stomach is sticky, but I wait until he’s gone. I need to know what he meant, what kind of girl I am.
I go through his phone. It’s passcode protected, but I try 1-1-1-1, and it opens. I comb his messages for some kind of unifying theorem that lays out what I need to know—what makes her, her, and me, me.
“Hey, are you coming?” he calls.
I look up. The cabbit is staring at me from the open door of its kennel.
I go back to scrolling. There are so many women. I don’t have time to parse all this.
I put the phone back and get into the shower.
As the water covers my head, I ask myself what it means to love someone.
• • • •
I play my part. Wash. Smile. Put on “Tangled up in Blue” and ply him with wine. Fuck him again, this time like there’ll be no tomorrow. Feign a headache, tell him I want to go to sleep early. He laughs and embraces me, and we lay there until his breathing deepens into a snore.
I go to the cabbit’s cage. I haven’t made my decision yet, but I can feel it’s close, a loose tooth that hangs by a lone root.
I can’t live like this, I think to the cabbit. There’s no way to love him that doesn’t hurt, but I can’t stop. I stroke the cabbit’s head, this creature that’s supposed to take the parts of me I don’t want. Help me decide.
I feel the coolness then. When I probe my thoughts, I’m relieved to discover I no longer need to go through his phone. The cabbit has yanked my weakness out. I can be with him now without worrying.
I put the cabbit down and fall into sleep before my body even hits the bed.
• • • •
That night, I dream wet, crunching sounds, the smell of copper. I look up and see the cabbit sitting on Tom’s chest.
Tom’s head and one of his arms is missing, and the cabbit is chewing, chewing, chewing.
What a strange dream, I think, before falling back into the dark.
• • • •
When I wake up, the cabbit is gone, and I’m alone. There’s something mushy in the back of my mind, something I was supposed to remember, but can’t.
It’s not until I’m checking the room that I realize I’m missing a name. A name for this man that has left his phone, his wallet, and his keys. It’s frustrating, not knowing this, and it makes me think of that loose tooth again, that lone root—just a hot, painful itch.
I forget it when I see the note sticking out of the typewriter.
TOO HARD TAKING CARE OF AN ANIMAL. DECIDED TO RETURN THE CABBIT.
I should be angry. The reflex is there: that’s my cabbit. I need it.
But when I tongue the soft places inside me, all I find is that itch again, a desire to walk until my legs collapse.
I flip the note over and type, I’M BREAKING UP WITH YOU. I take his keys and lock the door as I leave.
Somewhere between his place and mine, I drop them into a sewer grate. They rattle as they hit the bottom.
I think about changing my major. About dropping out of school. But this can wait, can be figured out tomorrow, next week, next month.
I take in a deep breath and sigh, and the sound is like an ocean wave, soft and long.