Alicia Catt is an MFA candidate at Minnesota State University-Mankato. Her work has appeared in The Dirty Napkin, Revolution House, Airplane Reading, and decomP, among others. She prays nightly that her English 101 students never, ever Google her.
If Across Oceans You Find Yourself A Stranger
When it is finally over, and you are backing down the driveway for the final time, the pavement you shared, over, and he’s standing at the screen door, watching, maybe waiting for your April fools!, but it’s August and no fooling, it’s over—when you can’t see out the rearview, so many boxes stacked, jeans and books and bras all over, and your bumper slams into the postbox—god damn—you don’t stop to wave, don’t stop to check for damage, just throw it in drive and go, go, blow the streetlight, hit the highway heading west before the nausea can crack the code of your throat. It’s over.
This is how three years can pass: in a cocoon spun too tight. This is how a marriage can break: you love until your love becomes a weapon. This is how you lose a husband: tear him down, drive him away. Then drive away.
Eighteen years old and you are free, all fingernails and fangs, ready to claw your way from the grave of a wrecked family, to mound it over with dirt and be done. You tell yourself you won’t be the kind of small town girl who never leaves. And then, stage right, your chance to disappear: a Londoner, visiting friends in town, with long amber hair, jacked up teeth, body like a fire door—heavy and safe. He is a fidgeter, a thumb-twiddler; he barely looks at you but to laugh and blush. This is how you know he will bend for you.
The Brit’s hotel room stinks of pheromones and foreign soaps, and, after you enter, like sex, a ten-day fortress of lust under the scratchy comforter. On the fourth night, he falls asleep underneath you. You try to wake him, fail, manage to get off anyway. On the sixth night, your father bangs on the room door—how did he find you here?—howling and snarling, ordering his daughter to come back home. You take orders from nobody now. You curse at him through the deadbolted door, kick it until your foot is bruised.
The Brit just watches you, stolid. Welcome to my stupid fucking life, you say, but he only shrugs: It’s okay. He folds you tightly into the crook of his arm, and that is when you know: this man will weather you. This man will take all of your crazy in stride.
He wants citizenship and you want a clean slate, so you marry, in your new apartment with a justice of the peace, ten friends, marble cake. His family flies in from Surrey; you keep yours hidden three miles away. Someone snaps photographs of the two of you, giggling, covered in buttercream. Your dress is a little white lie smeared with chocolate that sits in a laundry basket to mold, unwashed, for months.
And you love him, this husband. You do. You take his last name to escape your own—you live on Wildcat Court and collect stray cats until you are caricatures of yourselves. He is the quiet to your bellow, the meek to your rage, the steady voice of reason to your bipolar peaks and valleys. On his birthday, you drive to the park at midnight and lay a blanket on the grass. You rip your clothes off, his clothes off, do it right there even though it’s sixty degrees and drizzling and your teeth are chattering. When he is inside you, you are not empty. When he is inside you, he can’t leave.
Nineteen. You get fat on mood stabilizers and junk food. You can’t hold a job; the Brit is waiting on a green card that takes months to arrive. Instead of working, you make a hobby of stealing groceries by the cartful. You buy jugs of milk for the blaze orange PAID sticker, then double back to the bread aisle to grab your overflowing cart and wheel it out the doors. You have a system, and nobody stops you—why would they? You learn the secret of getting away with anything: act like the world belongs to you, and it will.
You eat and eat and fatten until bright red stretch marks rip across the terrain of your stomach. The Brit, a card-carrying Mensan, gets a factory job for which he is vastly overqualified. He comes home to find you half-comatose in bed, surrounded by crinkly bags of Cheetos, Fritos, Doritos. When he tries to touch you, you push him away.
Some days you catch him watching porn—lithe, limber women, perky-titted women, women you’ll never be. You crouch and bury your mouth in his lap, a vindictive suck, more bite than lip. You crush him with your hand. Like you could ever squeeze enough love out of him to satiate you.
Twenty. You find ephedrine. And then you find Ritalin. And then you find four hours a day at the gym on a thousand calories. A deep cleanse vegan diet. A liquid fast. You quit the antipsychotics and antidepressants cold turkey, and for weeks your brain misfires: electric neuron shocks and vision trails. You watch the fat slip from your bones like melting butter.
The Brit teaches you to ride a bike, the first one you’ve owned—a red Huffy with chubby tires that wobble uncontrollably beneath you. You wish for training wheels, kneepads, your mother, safety. Down the sidewalk you go. He holds you upright, then slowly releases his grip. When you fall and scrape your skin he lifts you up and dusts you off, brushes his lips against your eyebrow. So you try again.
You take a stab at college and meet Angie, a heavy-hipped blonde who talks too loud and lets her eyes roam over your body, shameless. You bring her home to share with the Brit, but really you bring her home for you—to pin her to the bed, to be headlocked in the vise grip of her sweet musclemilk thighs while he watches. But when he reaches to touch her—when she reaches back—your greedy heart aches. Red and black and blue all over.
In bed you turn wild, a beast he cannot tame. You want him to punch you, scratch you, bite you, make you cry. You position the Brit’s hands around your neck and press into them until you see spots. He is cold and unresponsive. Call me a whore, you say, call me a slut.
I can’t, he says. I love you.
Twenty-one. You cheat and don’t bother to hide it. You tell the Brit you’re a lesbian, because at first you think you might be. You date Jenni, fall fast, deep, dumbshit in lust with her, watch her choose another woman over you. In your grief, you get trashed; the next morning, you wake up in your bed with a man who is not your husband. And the next morning, another. And another. You don’t know why.
You tell the Brit: I’m sorry. We’re not working. Five tiny words—how easily they tumble out of your mouth. You watch his face fall like rain.
You live together because you can’t afford to leave. You come home late most nights, reeking of other men, bruised black from mandible to shoulder with their teethprints and suckle marks. The Brit looks, then doesn’t look. You hear him sob in the shower, then cover your ears because you can’t bear it. You are just twenty-one, a monster, a child. You mistake your hickeys for new love.
You bring men into your bed you’ve never met. The Brit says nothing; he takes the couch at night while they slobber up and down your thighs. You devour their praise and beg for more. They are no more strangers than your husband, now.
When the Brit’s new girlfriend comes over, you size her up: fat ass, stick legs, nice hair, rich bitch. You are a little too friendly. You are a little too eager. You fill a notepad with one hundred things you hate about her, leave it open for the Brit to find.
When she comes over, you bite your own wrists hard.
When she comes over, you get sloshed and dance naked in the street, don’t give a fuck who sees.
When she comes over, they look so happy.
When she comes over, you ask the Brit if you can please speak to him privately, then maul him with your body, wet and needy, until he raises his voice at you for the first and last time: No, he says. You broke my heart. No.
And a door creaks closed.
When you finally leave, it is sudden: one minute you’re sitting in the kitchen, the next you’re hauling cardboard boxes to your car, head reeling, panic-euphoric, go, go, daylight fading, quick kiss on his stubbled chin and don’t look back, drive fast, drive west toward city lights and billboards, an exit ramp, tears soaking your face, not sad, just—over.
And this is where it begins, in the same place it seems to end: the slow, aching emancipation of your body, your hurricane heart. The freedom you wanted. A new start. The first falling-out of love.