FICTION: Cannot Touch

The sheets have to be bleached, that’s for certain.

I watch him from the end of my bed staring at his fingernails, knuckles at his nose. “Need a manicure?” I joke, naked. I pull the sheet to my chest.

He shrugs and lets his arms hang in surrender to my impending inspection.

I slide toward him on my stomach like a seal.


I swam every day at the Santa Monica pool, lap after lap after lap, attempting to get to know my body better. My friends told me the best whole-body work outs were yoga, pole dancing, and swimming, so I chose the least sexual of the three. I started swimming after college and continued for two years until the incident.

Like usual, when I had tired, I stopped in the center of my lane and curled myself into a fetal position, floating in the water. The residual energy of my butterfly strokes carried me with a lull and bob of kinetic motion.


Under his nails are thick lines of brown and red. I feel an instant ball of guilt. I place his hand down and stare up at the ceiling and it makes me feel worse, gazing at something so unaffected. I look back to his nails, ashamed for having marked him with streaks of something so earthy and hidden. I thought it was my lighter day, but the evidence is damning.


Under the water, I pretended the heartbeat in my ears was a rhythm, pitter-pattering across the surface. In my stomach, I felt a small eddy of nausea expanding and tugs from cramps. I squeezed my legs to my chest, tighter.


I put my hand down over his and close my eyes. It’s not just the desire for sex that weighs on me, but the longing for it during a time where I feel my body is operating without me. A leaking faucet with no handles. How often do I exist with so little control?


I exhaled what little breath I had left from my nose. Through blurry vision, the obscured bubbles rose to the surface as I sunk, my knees gently hitting the bottom of the pool. I longed for my body to stay there, but from the corner of my eye, I saw it: a thin, red rivulet, rising. My feet kicked the floor and I burst up out of the water, my mouth and nostrils wide and open, inhaling.


He moves his hand out from under mine and brushes my hair back.

I curl my knees to my ribs and slide back until my head rests against his chest. “I’m okay,” I whisper to the hairs around his nipple.

“You are,” he says.

I place my head over his heart and listen to the pumping of blood I cannot touch.

Julia Gerhardt is a writer from Los Angeles, now living in Baltimore. She is a nominee for the Best Microfiction Anthology 2020 and Best Small Fictions Anthology. She has previously been published in The Umbrella Factory, The Airgonaut, Brilliant Flash Fiction, Cease, Cows, Literary Orphans, Rogue Agent, Flash Fiction Magazine, Monkeybicycle, and others. Her work is forthcoming in the Eastern Iowa Review. She is currently working on her first novel.

Image: Swimmers, Carlo Carra, 1910-1912

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