I went to college with a man two decades ago and this year he killed his wife.
My ex-boyfriend, the man I loved back then, emails me after the arrest.
How did you know, he asks. All that time ago, how did you know?
I remember a moment between the three of us, the murderer, my ex-boyfriend, and me. We were walking home. It was dark. The men were drunk.
A cat shot past us, paused in the deserted street.
My boyfriend shouted, shoo cat. Shoo.
Going to get smashed, slurred the murderer, pitching forward.
The cat, soft grey and shining, its coat a haze in the streetlamps, glared.
I’ve hit cats, said the murderer.
She did once, my boyfriend said. Coming back from a concert.
I threw up after. The glint of its eyes, the solid soft hunk of contact. Outlined in the night, splayed on that dissection tray of road.
I’ve killed nine, said the murderer. Nine cats. Or the same cat in all of its lives. He barked a laugh. All nine cat lives.
I asked, why?
He snatched my arm with a dead weight, like a child grabs a toy he does not want to share. They were just cats. And they were there.
I yanked my arm, could not dislodge him. My boyfriend retched behind us, a wet sound of slapping on the pavement.
Let go, I whispered, not because I wanted to sound soft. This was all the volume I could manage under the other man’s presence, under the density of his hand.
My boyfriend was the one who broke him away, not by choice but by chance; he leaped up, no longer sick, and Red Rovered between us like a kid, chattering to me as the murderer jumped into the street, made a jabbing movement toward the animal.
The cat hissed, raised itself until it was all claws, all fang.
Sometimes things are just there, he said. He slunk toward the cat.
In a blur, it spun and sprinted down a storm drain.
When he walked back to the sidewalk, he smiled showing all his teeth, the way a dog growls.
The next morning I told my boyfriend what he missed while he was puking, how the murderer seized my arm, how it felt like jaws around a throat.
He said, well, he’s always been nice to me. I don’t think he was trying to scare you.
I told him how the murderer had laughed about killing those cats, the way he seemed to take up all the air.
Why didn’t you tell me you felt like that?
But it was more than that, I insisted. It was how the mass of him filled whole corners, how his silences bled into my bones with a weight and a predatory bird’s feel. How the slope of his shoulders was an avalanche, how being with him was somehow off, like a phantom tingle, finding nothing on your shoulder, your thigh. How every movement he ever made was in an empty room, like he was always rehearsing how to be a human.
I asked, have you ever looked in his eyes?
Because they were two drums of oil, opened to the world.
He took my hand. He asked me, has he ever—with that pause, that pause of all men
comprehending the depths of other men as though for the first time—done something to you?
Woman’s intuition, said my then-boyfriend. How can you expect me to believe that?
The insistence of the murderer’s touch, the blunt instruments of his hands. How emotion entered his voice too late, noticeably late. The slits he cut in conversation, his interjections swift and spilling like he was gutting a deer.
But there was too much, too much to explain to someone who can survive without the necessity of noticing, of tracking the million tiny motions of men.
We broke up two weeks later.
In my reply, I tell him it is woman’s intuition.
LOL, he sends back. You should let us in on that once in awhile.
As though it is a mystery, some form of feminine magic we can gift to others.
We catch up, emails brief and spotty. He is married still. His daughters are getting ready for college. He has included pictures.
I told them to be careful, he writes. He drops the words like he is waiting for my assurance. Like this is the best of advice, like this will help them, his girls, probably lovely and energetic and excited to exist on their own. He wants me to promise him this is the only advice they need, that they do not need to memorize that crinkling of voice and that tone and that swinging low glance that travels all the way up and that crick of the neck and that pitch of the head and that narrowing of eyes and that slanting of brow and that forward motion of hands and chest and body. They do not need to learn to recognize a touch that is barely too harsh, a movement that is barely too forceful, a gaze that becomes barely too hungry, an intonation of one syllable of one word of one sentence that rings barely too sharp, too knifelike. They do not need to stitch together one memory and another one and another one all the time, they do not need to learn to survive how animals do, from the corners of our eyes.
Liz Breazeale is the recipient of the 2018 Prairie Schooner Book Prize for Fiction, and her first book, Extinction Events, will be published by University of Nebraska Press in 2019. She holds an MFA in fiction from Bowling Green State University and currently lives in Kansas City, Missouri. Her work has been featured in the Best of the Net anthology, and her fiction is forthcoming or has appeared in Pleiades, Salt Hill, Fence, Sycamore Review, Passages North, Booth, Territory, and others.