An American Seeker
Fiction by Kevin Catalano
Heidi returned from her job at the Watchung Bank and Loan that evening, glad to find that Paul had already left for work. For the first time in their four-year relationship, Heidi began snooping through Paul’s things. The cargo shorts Paul had worn while tending bar were balled up on the carpet next to his side of the bed. They were dank with alcohol and sweat. She turned the pockets inside-out and wads of cash fell to the floor, along with receipts and business cards. Heidi sat cross-legged and sifted through the evidence, heart racing with expectation. The business cards were not at all interesting (mainly because they belonged to men). However, the receipts had suspicious things written on them. Many had phone numbers and email addresses, though no names; one had drawings of stick figures with stick dicks going into stick vaginas; another, the one that really got Heidi’s attention, had the words American Psycho written in a female’s bubbly script with a heart next to it. This receipt she held on to.
Since last night, Heidi was disturbed that Paul had managed to surprise her with the marriage proposal. They were at the same semi-authentic Italian restaurant they’d always gone to Sunday nights, and three different waitresses delivered three different, ever-since-the-day-I-met-you lines, concluding with big Paul, wincing on a knee, displaying a ring.
Heidi thought she knew him well enough to tell when he was keeping something from her. In fact, he no longer attempted to surprise her with Christmas or birthday gifts. Now, he simply asked what she wanted, because she’d find the receipt for the gift, or the gift itself stupidly hidden in places he never frequented, which were the exact places she always did: the top of the coat closet where the iron was kept, under the kitchen sink with the glass cleaner and dishwasher detergent — inside the washing machine, for Christ’s sake. Heidi didn’t like the version of herself that knew more about Paul than Paul did. She hated being that kind of woman, the type depicted in sitcoms and women’s magazines — the ones who nag their dopey husbands. But if dopey Paul was capable of secretly planning such an elaborate proposal, he could be capable of any other imaginable sneakiness.
She knew the night would conclude with her sitting at the kitchen table, well into her third glass of pinot noir, Paul’s laptop open, looking through his emails. She logged onto his account, typing in the same password he used for everything: Paul123.
Two thousand unread emails. She instinctively wanted to organize his messages, deleting the obvious junk emails, creating folders for the others. But she was on a mission, searching for messages from girls. Maybe American Psycho was a codeword he used when emailing some lonely housewife for a late-night hook-up. She did a quick Google search and discovered American Psycho was a novel, which only intrigued her more, since Paul wasn’t a reader. She then typed the phrase into the email’s search, but came up with nothing. She scrolled through pages and pages of messages, clicking on the ones from females whose names were unfamiliar. A few got her attention. One from last year read: “Hope to see you this weekend,” to which he had replied, “Right on” — a phrase he unfortunately overused. Mostly, these messages were harmless, though she wouldn’t allow herself to quit until she had exhausted her search. She kept telling herself one more page. And then, it was one o’clock in the morning.
She felt disgusting. Her legs were cramped from sitting in the chair at the kitchen table. The entire apartment was dark, except for the blue light of the laptop screen. She groaned and got up to pee, avoiding herself in the bathroom mirror. The same impulse that compelled her to snoop, however, forced her to examine her reflection. Closely. She forced a smile, then let it limp, and studied the lines left behind. So close the mirror fogged, she held her breath, and noted her freckles turning to the splotches her mother now had on her face and hands. Heidi stared hard at herself, a ruthless showdown. She shut out the lights, darkness crawling her skin.
She muttered, “Fuck you, you old, worthless bitch.”
Here was the plan: when Paul woke up tomorrow, Heidi would be reading American Psycho on the couch, so that when he came out of the bedroom, she and the book would be the first thing he saw. Over the top of the pages she’d carefully watch for his expression, that which would give him away. Once trapped, she’d pounce — interrogating him until he confessed his infidelity. She would have to prepare for what he might reveal: an affair that had gone on for years, perhaps with not only one woman, but countless female customers — hundreds maybe. Perhaps he never worked at the bar; maybe that was a cover for cheating, and he was even savvier than she recently thought. She had to be ready for anything.
There was nothing on TV that night — nothing else to do other than read the book. She hadn’t planned on reading it; the book was a prop. She wouldn’t admit this to most people, but her reading material of choice was vampire and sorcery and King Arthur books. They didn’t write these novels fast enough. She knew very well that these were what thirteen-year-old girls read — that they were considered lowbrow and so forth. But they were good, and when she was home alone at night, she wasn’t looking to challenge her intellect or broaden her horizons. She was just looking for a good read, and maybe if these literary authors got off their high horses and wrote something interesting for a change, she’d give them a try.
Heidi put on her soft, froggy pajamas, poured herself some wine, got under a blanket on the couch, and opened this novel with the horrible name. At first, she didn’t get it. There was this egotistical guy who apparently loved face- and hair product, who loved to exercise and listen to 80s music, and who hung out with Wall Street friends who were shallow and racist and talked about nothing other than getting reservations at fancy restaurants. Where was the psycho stuff? Heidi kept looking at the book cover to make sure she had the right one. This is so stupid, she thought, but found it rather easy to read — not a lot of big words or fancy writing. She was over a hundred pages in when the guy narrating the book, Patrick, sliced open a homeless man’s eyeball, and it ran down his face like an egg yolk. Then Patrick cut open the man’s nose, and the most awful part was that he didn’t kill the man; he just left him in agony on the street, with his eye cut out and his nose flayed.
“Jesus,” Heidi said to the book, heart throbbing in her ears. What surprised Heidi, scared her a little, was that she began to read faster, seeking out the next violent scene.
The violence to come was unimaginable horror, and she read voraciously. This Patrick would lure various women into his extravagant Manhattan apartment, and do unspeakable things to them with mace, a nail gun, a rusty coat hanger, a power drill, and oh, Lord, what he did to one with a rat. Reading these scenes — described so carefully, in such gruesome detail — made Heidi afraid of herself. The author’s trick, if it was one, was that what preceded the violence were detailed, pornographic sex scenes, so that Heidi constantly found her hand between her legs. Then, out would come the nail gun! She was convinced she was diseased in the head, the furious way she was devouring the pages, reading (hoping?) for how the author would top the previous scene’s gruesomeness.
The handle of the front door jiggled. Heidi froze. It was 3 a.m. Thank God it was only Paul. She remembered the book, the plan — this could all backfire if he found her on the couch waiting up for him.
Paul opened the door, and Heidi hid the book under the blanket. He looked at her, confused, and then he smiled. “Hey, baby. What are you doing up?”
“Nothing,” was all she managed. She noticed that the TV was off, the apartment was dark, and there was no type of reading material in sight. She must have looked creepy.
“Nothing?” he stumbled toward her, a little tipsy. He sat down next to her, unloading wads of cash onto the coffee table. “What do you mean, nothing? What were you doing?”
It was late. She was suddenly tired and irritated that she was in this position. “Just nothing, Paul,” she snapped. “Leave me alone.”
His big, flushed face retained the smile, and now the sweet scent of liquor wafted from his mouth. “You’ve been acting really weird lately. Ever since I proposed to you.”
Heidi bunched up the blanket to conceal the book and waddled to the bedroom. She was aware, and ashamed of her behavior, but couldn’t help it.
Paul followed her into the room. “If you don’t want to get married,” he said, “we don’t have to. We’ll just go back to how it was before.”
She climbed into bed, still holding the balled-up blanket. “How it was before,” she repeated absently. The hard spine of the novel had found its way between her legs. She shifted her butt to escape it, but it only pressed into her, prickling her thighs with goosebumps.
Then Paul said, “What are you hiding?”
She shook her head.
“Under the blanket. I’m not an idiot.”
The book rubbed at her clitoris. She bit her lip, squinted her eyes.
Paul stood still watching her for a moment. “You’re losing it,” he said, and left the room.
Heidi slithered under the covers and squeezed her eyes shut. The violent images from the novel were waiting for her. One scene in particular described Patrick skinning a woman alive. Heidi felt that about herself, that someone was yanking her skin off her flesh in one, long peel, revealing the purple meat underneath.
Paul had slept on the couch that night, which he often did; this time, though, he was sending her a message. So as not to wake him, she sneaked out the bedroom and through the kitchen glowing with new sun. She went into the bathroom and sat on the toilet. Her head buzzed, hung over from the late night and her gruesome dreams.
She turned on the shower and studied herself in the mirror. There, on the split of her nose, a cold sore was blossoming. It was in its pre-pus stage, bubbling the skin. Of course she would get one — it was her punishment for her behavior. She always understood her cold sores to be what kept her vanity in check. This morning, however, she surprised herself. She pulled the tip of her nose up oink-style and studied the viral skin — the pinks and reds, the tumor-like texture that deformed her. Where before she would want to hide under a rock for the week, today she couldn’t wait for the ooze, the gold-flaked crust of dried pus. Her own distinct, localized horror show.
Instead of going to work, she drove to the mall. She weaved in and out of the elderly mall-walkers and teenagers, and stopped at a mannequin in the window of one of those boutiques that sells slutty, urban-youth apparel. The mannequin sported a fabulous black dress with a low V-neck top and a dangerously short skirt. She wore knee-high black fuck-me boots, and to top it off, a raven-black, femme fatale wig. She’d walked by this display countless times in the past few weeks, always intrigued, not sure why.
“Patricia,” Heidi said, fogging the glass.
She charged into the store and ordered the sixteen-year-old texting on her phone to retrieve the dress and boots. The girl was exasperated and moved too slowly, so Heidi stepped into the showcase window and stripped the mannequin. She shimmied out of her clothes, putting on a show for the group of high-school guys who stopped to gawk. She performed a catwalk twirl before pulling on the black dress, then stepped into the boots, and zipped them up her calf with slow seduction. After positioning the wig on her head, she cocked her hip and blew a kiss at the guys — who hooted and took pictures of her on their phones — and she turned and marched out of the window.
“Hey, you can’t do that,” the teenager called.
“It’s already done.”
As she strutted through the mall toward the exit, Heidi felt that the blood pumping through her had electrified, sending continuous spasms up and down her legs. She got into her car, deciding right at that moment that she — or rather, Patricia — was going to pay Paul a visit at the bar.
As she drove, she thought of the times — at least twice a year — when she would get so fed up with Paul’s messiness and overall lack of drive that she’d blow up at him and demand that he make an attempt to change. For a solid week, he’d clean up his hairs from the bathroom sink, put his dishes away, and make the bed. Once he even typed up a résumé, but the only jobs it listed were a Staples and the same bar he’d been tending ever since they met, which was at the bank. At that time, she was a lowly teller, and every couple weeks, he’d deposit startling wads of cash. There was plenty of time to chat as she counted the filthy bills — organizing them into sequential piles — that amounted to six-to-eight hundred dollars. She would think about his mysterious profession at night in bed: a drug dealer, a ruthless bookie, a pool-playing hustler. In each scenario, she would be his fabulous accountant. This was his allure, and so she had allowed him to take her out to dinner where she couldn’t wait to ask what he did for a living. Her disappointment was profound when he told her he tended bar. But as the meal progressed, she had found herself charmed by his humor and affability. Even if he wasn’t New Jersey’s leading supplier of marijuana, there was still something enigmatic about Paul that kept her interested. Perhaps, she now thought, it was his inability to change — that he remained the same old Paul despite his context. Or maybe the fact was that nobody was capable of change, and therefore, Paul was just like everybody else.
Heidi squealed into the parking lot of the bar. She looked at herself in the rearview and adjusted the black wig. Her cold sore was oozing, an orange, candy-like bubble. As Heidi stepped out of the car, she wondered whether she was evidence that people change. She charged toward the entrance with supermodel confidence — wagging her ass and swinging her arms, heels clapping the asphalt like nail-gun fire. This was not change, she thought. This was finding herself.
Heidi flung open the door and swaggered inside. She wanted to see if Paul was into the dangerous types, because he might have to marry one.
KEVIN CATALANO is the author of the novel, Where the Sun Shines Out (Skyhorse). His writing has appeared in PANK, Fanzine, Gargoyle Magazine, and storySouth, among other places. For more, visit kevincatalano.com.
2015 Luminaire Best Prose Award Finalist
Originally published on The Spark on 5/20/15.