The Ballad of Paul and Cassie
A Short Story by Karina Sanchez
Written using the suggestion "Orbit"
Originally featured on 09-28-2007
As part of our series "Alternative Universals"

I remember every detail of the first time I saw Cassie. It was my senior year of college, springtime. I was standing at the edge of the courtyard trying to decide if I wanted to eat or go home before class. It was warm out but not unpleasantly so; there was a soft breeze. It was a perfect day to scoop co-eds with sweatshirts tied around their waists. That was when she stepped into view. She was tantalizingly unencumbered, no sweater or jacket; she wasn’t even carrying a backpack. Her hair was long and straight, with thick bangs; it was the most delicate shade of auburn I’ve ever seen. It was almost red. She was wearing a tight black t-shirt over a green tartan miniskirt. Unlike other girls at the time, Cassie never covered her legs with tights, and she had great legs.

I, in stereotypical fashion, was breathless. I watched her for the entire 15 minutes that she was in the courtyard, talking with friends. Our progression was normal for college. I pined and obsessed and schemed to “casually” run into her. She didn’t know that I existed and completely ignored my presence. Until one day she did notice me. That’s how we became Cassie-and-Paul.

We were happy for a while. She was wild and devoted. We felt like we were the only two people in the world. We spent every moment together, waking or otherwise. Then we didn’t.

“Where are you going, Paul?”

“Just down to the corner store to get some smokes, want anything?”

Staring daggers at me, “Yeah, the name of the girl you’re meeting.”

“I’ll be back in ten minutes. I won’t have time to meet anyone.”

“So it’s just lack of time that keeps you from cheating on me?”
“Come off it, Cassandra. You know that’s not it.” Cassandra, what had once been an endearment had become a weapon, something used only when I was aggravated. We had been having this fight, and others like it, for months. I would try to break-up with her but she would pout and simper until I relented to staying. It was an impossible situation. I was fortunate to have friends who realized what a mess I had myself in. It helped that people I used to see every day, I hadn’t seen in months. They came when Cassie was out and, almost, forcibly removed me from our apartment.

 

 

Three years later and I’m in New York, postgraduate school, working on my dissertation. I grew a beard and slept with a married woman. I thought that made me sophisticated. I was at a trendy bar in SoHo ordering a single-malt scotch (which I didn’t even like) when she was suddenly in front of me. All hot breath and glitter.

“OhmygodPaulhowhaveyoubeen?” She functions at a mile a second and I wondered if she was high. She was wrapping her arms around me before I could think.

“Cassie, wow. What are you doing in New York?” I felt my resistance waning and wrapped my arms around her bare shoulders, groping fingers on tube top exposed back. I didn’t want to let her go. My mind was a blur of images of her naked. She smelt spicy, like ginger.

Her laughing, pulling away from me, “Partying! Just here for a little vacation.”

Me trying to hold on to her, like she’s a dream, “How weird that we should run into each other, like it’s fate or something.” I laughed nervously at my own stupidity. I couldn’t remember why we had broken up and cursed my friends for stealing her from me.

She had to have been thinking the same thing because she put her hand on my cheek and smiled. “It’s totally like fate! I can’t believe you’re here. How long are you in town? We have to hangout!”

“I live here. In New York, not the bar. Though I kind of live in the bar.” All I could think about was keeping her with me. My mouth was talking without input from my brain. I could feel myself rambling but had no idea what I was saying. Cassie, Cassie, Cassandra. I couldn’t believe that she was standing in front of me, happy to see me. Oh wait, she was talking.

“…live nearby?”

“Huh?”

“Do you live nearby? I’d love to catch up but it’s so loud in here!”

So we went back to my studio. One thing of course lead to another and Cassie was back in my life. It got horrible much faster than last time. She drank too much, never slept, and left cigarette butts everywhere she sat. I was miserable but addicted. Her jealousy and insecurity were incredible; she accused me of sleeping with our doorman. Who was a man, and 73. Several times she would disappear for an entire night only to show up at my office with smeared make-up, wearing the halter-top and micro mini from the night before. I wanted out but she was too powerful. She was like the Sun; I couldn’t get away from her. I would get angry and blow up at her. She would cry and pout and apologize, and then insist that we just needed to do something fun together. We’d find a crowded bar and spend the night making out in the corner, until we were so drunk that it seemed normal for her to hitch up her skirt and straddle my lap.

I came home from the library to this: “Where the fuck have you been?”

A glass ashtray flew at my head. “What the fuck!?” I ducked down and crab-scuttled towards her. “I told you this morning that I had to go to the library! I haven’t worked on my dissertation in months. Don’t be crazy. I’m too tired for that shit.”

“Crazy? Crazy?!” She started throwing everything she could get her hands on at me. “How dare you! You’re writing about the migration of fucking moths and you call me crazy!”

I managed to avoid most of her projectiles but she gashed my eyebrow open with the framed collage of pictures from our Vermont vacation that she had given me. She stopped when she noticed I was bleeding. That was when she started groveling. She immediately teared up and crawled towards me.

“Oh baby, I’m so sorry. Are you okay?”

I jerked back from her. I might not have had any self-respect left; but even I had a line to draw. I stood and pressed my shirtsleeve against my head, blood running into my eye. “I’m going to the hospital. When I get back, you and your stuff had better be somewhere else.”

She was curled on the floor sobbing and I thought for the first time: Bipolar? “Paul, Paul, Paul. I’m so sorry… so sorry.”

Walking out without saying another word was one of the hardest things that I have ever done. It was one of the few things I can still take pride in. I had to get five stitches. The scar is still visible. But by some miracle, she was gone when I got back. Of course, nothing is ever perfect; she took the first fifty pages of my dissertation with her and poured vodka over my computer on her way out. All of my work was gone.

It took five years to reconstruct the missing piece and finish it. I met Marie in that time and we got married shortly after I took a research job in Maine. We had a nice life, quiet, steady. Nothing like the times I had spent with Cassie.

 

 

Marie and I had been married for 10 years but I would be lying if I said that I didn’t still think of Cassie often. Not every day, not anymore, but more frequently than I was comfortable with. She was a guilty fantasy that I just couldn’t let go of. I was at a convention in Cleveland, one that I had gone to for the past 6 years. I usually spent most of the spare time in my hotel room but this year was different. I had made some ‘convention friends’ and decided to go down to the bar with them. I was drinking a scotch (which I still didn’t like) when I saw a woman at the bar. Her back was to me but I knew that it was Cassie. Her hair was half up/half down. I stopped talking. I stopped breathing.

Excusing myself as soon as I could, I stumbled my way over to her. She looked older, her skin leathered from too much sun, but her eyes and mouth and body were the same. They were mine. I sat on the stool next to her, waiting for her to notice me, not wanting to be the one responsible. And she did notice me. Her eyes glassed over with tears and she froze, drink halfway to mouth. She didn’t say anything, only stared at me. I guess that it was my turn to make the first move.

My hollow voice said, “Hey Cassie.”

Crying was imminent, she knew she was wrong. “Paul,” like a sigh.

We’re already leaning towards each other, outcome inevitable. “What are you doing in Cleveland?”

Avoiding the question, “I could ask the same of you.”

Laughing. “Touche.”

“I’m sorry… about how it ended.” She was reaching for me, touching me. I didn’t stop her. I’ve never been able to stop her.

“It’s okay, Cassie. It was a crazy time, we were so young.”

She’s breathing hot on me, same ginger scent. “We’re not kids anymore.”

I took her upstairs to my room and we relearned the contours of each other. We remembered the puzzle piece fit that was always our love making. At one point I couldn’t tell if it’s her screaming or me.

Morning lights brought complications. I remembered myself. Who I was; where I really belonged. I left my room and checked out before she awoke. I went home a day early and explained to Marie that the convention was boring, that I missed her. I’m pretty sure that she didn’t believe me but she never asked and I never confessed.

I avoided anything that might bring me into contact with Cassandra. I never wrote in to the alumni newsletter, never attended a reunion. I knew that if I came in contact with her I wouldn’t be able to stop myself. She would have me again.

 

 

 

At 47, I was sitting in my office working on a paper, when my phone rang. It was probably Marie, wondering when I would be home for dinner.

“Hello?”

Nothing for a second, then, “Paul?”

My heart started racing. “Yes? Who’s this?” I knew who it was though. Cassandra. Her voice was rasped from years of cigarettes but it still had the same pleading quality. It was still, undeniably her.

“Cassie,” she answered uncertainly.

I tried to be strong. “How did you get this number?”

Laughing a little, “I Googled your name. Isn’t technology incredible?”

I wanted to hang up, actually managed to pull the phone away from my ear a few inches, but couldn’t. I was lost already—pulled in. Like magnets, like gravity. It doesn’t matter what she said next or how long we orbited around each other this time, or next time. It was the same song on repeat. She needed me and I hated to disappoint.

Read More By Karina Sanchez

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