Downward Slope

The world crashes and burns all around us. But that’s the thing, it used to be around us. Not right in our backyard. Creeping ever-closer to our front door. Seeping right through the cracks of our beautiful house in Lake Tahoe—by way of smoke infiltration. I woke up to the unmistakable scent in the early hours of the morning one late summer day. Without thinking, I shot out of bed, not bothering to alert my husband to the situation. I guess I proved to myself in that instant just how much of a selfish cunt I could be, or perhaps was all the time. Because in that moment of panic, I honestly did not care about or even register having a husband. Couldn’t have even told you what his name was. Now, of course, I can. It’s Colin. Colin Zabel. Which makes me Mrs. Zabel, I suppose. Though I’ve never really thought of myself that way. I’m still Caitlin Cosway in my own mind—but I’d never say that to Colin. He’s always so easily offended—more accurately, his masculinity is always so easily threatened. Which is also why he seemed less upset about the nearing fire and more upset that I didn’t feel the need to lean on him by alerting him to the crisis at hand. By acting as though I was in dire need of his comfort to get me through the event. I wasn’t. 

Even though he had previously told me not to because it was like “tempting the fates,” I had decided to pack an emergency bag several weeks ago, and had put my “evacuation plan” clandestinely into place by purchasing an Airstream that I had parked in a secret location Colin would only find out about on a need-to-know basis. I guess things were starting to become need-to-know. Our dog, Alistair, got up along with me, and it was perhaps only his urgent and inquisitive whimpering that alerted Colin to the fact that something was wrong, for when he rose abruptly to find that I was gone, he frenziedly ran downstairs to see me exiting with my suitcase in tow.

“Caitlin?!” he called out in disbelief, starting to process that I would have been perfectly content to leave the threatened premises without him. I froze in my tracks, feeling caught like some hunted animal. 

Sheepishly, I turned around and replied with an innocent air, “Colin?” 

“What the hell are you doing?” he demanded. 

I thought carefully before I provided an answer that would make me seem slightly more selfless. I approached him purposefully, still clutching to my suitcase. Taking a deep breath, I finally responded, “Darling! I was just going to get our Airstream, that’s all. I didn’t want to tell you about it until the last minute. I knew you would be upset about it unless you saw for yourself that there was an ‘incident.’ And now, well, here we are.” I concluded her statement with a sweeping gesture of my arm, as though to motion to the chaos outside. Colin was unmoved. He glared at me, drumming his fingers eerily against the banister—all while Alistair looked earnestly from one master to the other, trying to anticipate what might happen next. He couldn’t have possibly known that Colin would all at once make a beeline toward me, hand outstretched to grab my neck. Wrapping his fingers around it as though I were some kind of rag doll. I suppose I was. I suppose that’s what it ultimately meant to be a rich man’s wife. Especially when you yourself did not start out with family money of your own. But I used the money that being his wife gave me to build myself up. Create profitable endeavors separate from Colin’s. I know it was cliché, but the profit I made was from opening a boutique jewelry store. Catering to women like me. Except that they weren’t quite like me because they were content with the simple “act” of being a trophy wife as opposed to actually doing something with that power, however minimal. 

Having a jewelry store meant nothing. It was about the least amount of effort I could put forth, especially since I didn’t even make any of the jewelry myself. Yet it was “a living.” And a surprisingly lucrative one at that. So good, in fact, I didn’t want to tell Colin how much I was actually making, squirreling away large sums of the earnings so that he wouldn’t try in some way to “horn in” on the project. It was better for him to assume it was just some “little hobby” of mine so that he would leave me and it alone. But now that he had learned of the Airstream, he immediately intuited that I had been conning him this entire time. It was as though he found out my long-planned secret, like Julia Roberts in Sleeping With the Enemy, to leave him once I had stashed enough cash.

As his hand squeezed tighter and tighter around my neck, I thought about the first time I met Colin. It was at the ski slopes. We both love to ski. And used to love doing it as our chief bonding activity. For me, it was the main reason I moved to Tahoe from Los Angeles. I had grown up in a ski town back East, and found that, as my acting “career” wasn’t taking off, I was starting to crave, more and more, the type of environment I had run away from. I heard about a unique audition opportunity in Tahoe and seized upon it. I didn’t get the part, obviously, but I took it as a sign to stay when I happened to ski the slopes before I planned to leave and encountered Colin in the lodge. I was never supposed to be there. It was a complete fluke. Not just that I felt obliged to ski before making my way back to L.A. with my tail between my legs, but because it was completely out of character for me to do something like “sit in the lodge.” Usually, when I went skiing, I devoted my entire day to it. But something drew me inside, and as I was critiquing the hot chocolate the waiter had served me, sniping at him about how I could tell it was Swiss Miss, Colin found his in to say, “Excuse me, Miss Swiss? I might have a solution for you.” 

Before I knew it, I was in the front seat of his red Ferrari being taken back to the house we now currently live in together. It was there that he had his maid, Elsa, make me what remains the best hot chocolate I ever had in my life. I think it was the hot chocolate that put me under his spell for so long, and I find it too much of a coincidence that the second Elsa decided to quit (therefore cut short the hot chocolate supply), our marriage seemed to take a very obvious nosedive. It was like he had been slowly pulling back the layers to his real personality and then, all at once, there was nothing left to pull back. There he was, naked. And horrible. I couldn’t stand him. But I had to pretend. To grin and bear it, as it is said. You might think me weak, but I had too much invested in the marriage now, and nowhere else to go. Anywhere I might go, Colin could both track me down and ensure my failure in that location. I was his financial prisoner, and we each knew that. It was the unspoken power discrepancy between us. And it was coming up in a very big way in this moment, with his hand around my neck. 

“Where’s this Airstream of yours?” he snarled, loosening his grip slightly so I could speak. 

“I parked it in a lot down the hill.” 

He arched his brow. “You really thought out your ‘fire escape plan’ well, Caitlin. Of course I can’t help but think it’s really me you were trying to escape.” 

“No Colin. Of course not. I intended to drive up here with it and wake you.” 

The smoke was becoming quite thick in the house now, engulfing us from all sides. I started coughing uncontrollably, but he still wouldn’t take his hand away. Exhibiting some kind of superhuman ability to withstand smoke inhalation, he kept staring at me…and choking me. Between him and the smoke, I figured death was imminent. But no, all of the sudden, he was leading me out of the house and shoving me into that Ferrari that, once upon a time, had lured me in, even though it should have repelled me. I kept shouting, “What about Alistair?! We need to take Alistair!” Colin ignored me.

Barreling down the hill toward “civilization,” I already knew where he was driving us. That it was going to be part of some poetic full-circle moment. I was well-aware by now that Colin was a more “poetic” person than most rich jocks. He had a soft spot for the cruelly ironic. I think all rich people did, whether they admitted it or not. 

Just as I suspected, he pulled up to the ski resort where we had first met, at this moment bursting into increasing flames. “Remember this?” he demanded.

I nodded. “How could I forget?”

He sneered. “It seems like you’ve forgotten a lot. Like who you owe your entire life to. You’d be a fucking waitress at a diner by now if I hadn’t come along. If I hadn’t loved you.”

I took especial note of his use of “love” in the past tense. If what we had could ever really be called that. It was a marriage of convenience for both of us, in different ways. For him, I was someone he thought he could control. For me, I thought he was someone who could be my knight in shining armor. It turned out, instead, that he would be my executioner pulling down the blade of the guillotine. 

“Where’s all the money you’ve been keeping from me?”

The flames crackled and swirled around me, but he kept pushing me deeper inside the resort, toward the chairlift.

“Why would I tell you now?”

“Because you owe me what’s mine.” 

“I owe you nothing!” I finally screamed, freeing myself from his hold and running to the chairlift of my own volition. I imagined he was going to put me on it anyway. I hit the switch to get it going again, and it groaned in annoyance as it lurched forward. He watched me from below, his face betraying his awe that I would rather kill myself than keep playing his game. The one where he dangled the “possibility” that I might be free. But I never would, so long as he was anywhere near me. And so really, I could only thank the fires for finally visiting this once-great haven for the affluent (after it was a once-great haven for anyone who appreciated Nature). The orange glow that surrounded me gave me comfort rather than worry. It was as though the world was crashing and burning in unison with my marriage. Finally, I looked back at Colin, who was at last admitting to his mortality by running back to the Ferrari to escape. I wondered what he would tell people. How he would spin my death. Would he make himself come across as heroic? It didn’t make much difference to me now. I only wish I could’ve said goodbye to Alistair. 

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