“Stockholm” by Catherine Steadman (Excerpt)

Overhead, the “Fasten Seat Belt” sign pings off.

We have leveled out, cruising at an altitude of thirty-seven thousand feet, high above the morning clouds of JFK International and bound for Stockholm.

First-class, seven and a half hours nonstop.

I used to tell my patients to imagine their thoughts as clouds passing high above them. I told them to imagine lying on the cool grass and watching these clouds drift and dissipate. It rarely worked on my obsessive CEOs and high-strung Manhattan socialites.

Luckily, as a psychiatrist, I had the added benefit of being able to offer them very powerful prescription medications as well. I know my chances of getting through this rely on me staying calm, and yet . . . and yet, a little voice in my head asks me, Why? Why, if you are so capable, haven’t you managed to get away from this situation before? The voice won’t just “be a cloud” for me, and so I imagine a pillow instead and place that pillow firmly over the voice’s mouth until it goes silent.

The effects of my own prescription meds are kicking in anyway. I let my breath deepen as I stare out at the cobalt sky through the cabin window. No clouds in sight. He makes sure I take the pills. I’ve gotten pretty good at squirreling them away, at avoiding their effects, though I didn’t make use of that skill today.

This morning, I gladly let them bob down my throat as he watched. I knew I’d need help with the nerves.

This trip is a surprise. An anniversary gift from him after two years of marriage. A city break, to Stockholm.

Sebastian is beginning to trust me, it would seem. After half a year of me playing my role impeccably, he thinks he might have finally broken me.

It did not start like this, our relationship. When we first met, the power shifted constantly, and I luxuriated in the push and pull. I was addicted to the all-consuming need of it. I was complicit in allowing a certain dynamic to wrap its tendrils around me. So who am I to complain if the grip has become too tight and I can no longer move?

In my defense, no one really knows how much they can take until they finally reach their limit.

My limit came the first night I decided to leave him. Needless to say, I never made it over the threshold. It nearly broke me—he nearly broke me—that night. Not physically, you understand; no, never physically. He is far too calculating for that. A cardiothoracic surgeon, he’s got too much to lose: a career, a reputation. Signs of physical violence would ruin everything; they could be used as grounds to dissolve my conservatorship. He’d never allow that.

You see, right now, I have no rights, no choice in where I live or sleep or what happens to my finances. I remember him telling me once, early in our courtship, how intimate it felt to hold a stranger’s heart in his hands when he operated. It’s a sharp and bitter favor to recall how impressed I was.

I leaf through the glossy pages of the in-flight magazine, filled with shots of smiling couples, crisp Scandinavian skies, and joyfully colored buildings.

I feel his presence in the seat beside me, engrossed in his hospital paperwork, my captor.

It amazes me that people do not see what’s going on when they look at us.

She is so lucky, they seem to think—those friends I no longer see, my old work colleagues, the girls I grew up with, even the staff bustling silently about our apartment. I don’t have anything in common with the people from my old life. It got too hard to listen to their quotidian problems over lunches.

In the aisle, a flight attendant deftly pops the cork on another bottle of Laurent-Perrier Grand Siècle. She leans in with her calibrated smile to refill a passenger’s frosted long-stem glass.

My husband is looking at me when I turn back, his warm brown eyes studying me, perhaps curious as to the thoughts flitting beneath my surface, like fish he’ll never be able to net. After a pause, a grin breaks across his handsome features. That ambiguous smile of his: clean cut, wholesome, but with a hint of something else lurking right behind it. An invitation to find out what might happen if you were to engage with it—to find out how far things might go, and how quickly. It still sends a fizz of excitement through me.

I felt it when I met him: his unwavering self-control, his discipline, his assurance. I knew the quality, and qualities, of my opponent long before the game began in earnest. His limits were as unclear as my own, so we began to test each other, to see where the edges of what was permissible lay.

I found I liked feeling the full force of his power turned back on me—the rush of possessing him, forcing his strength, his obsession, onto me. In turn he would push me, bend me to his will. I fucked a junior doctor on his ward to test how strong our bond had become, and I got the answer I wanted. He didn’t like it one bit.

His possession stepped up a gear, and I liked it. He found he liked it too, and so the scales fell away, and we truly saw each other for the first time. The sex, incredible. Rageful, all-consuming, and corrective.

Thirteen years as a practicing psychiatrist ought to have taught me better than to awaken dormant things in other people—but I stand by the idea that love should be honest with itself, that anything else is just duty.

I give him a sleepy smile so he knows the drugs are working. I am docile. He tucks a strand of hair behind my ear paternally before dipping back into his work.

Emails, test results, patient data. He is finishing up with work so he can focus on our holiday. He must work, you see; I had to give up my job a year after our wedding. His work is the only thing that sustains our lifestyle. He sustains us.

In the aisle, a flight attendant dips down by my side, her voice low, conspiratorial, and friendly. “Champagne?” she asks. I feel my heart constrict at her ease, the fact that she doesn’t see what is right in front of her.

All the flight attendant sees in me is an attractive, well-groomed Upper East Side brunette with a delicate Cupid’s bow and piercing green eyes. They still twinkle, my eyes; my skin still glows; my hair still shines and bounces because Seb pays a hairdresser a fortune to keep it that way. I am a doll made to look like a fully functioning woman, a woman who has a choice in what she does, or thinks, or drinks. But that woman is not real.

Before I can accept or decline the champagne, his warm voice cuts in over us, and we turn to him. My charming, funny, handsome husband. “Probably best not, right, honey? With your medications?” he says lightly, half-in, half-out of work.

Medications. A subtle introduction—for this stranger—to the idea that my judgment is not to be trusted.

He’s clever, reassuring, and he always has been. .

To her credit, the attendant’s eyes flicker back to me to check I am OK with this.

The little voice inside me tells me to grab her hand and tell her: “I was a real person. I had a beautiful office on the Upper West Side and long-standing patients—start-up loners, terrible mothers, absent fathers, sociopaths, narcissists, sex addicts, people who could not stop and yet could not remember why they had started in the first place. I was very good at my job. I turned dysfunctional parasitic behaviors into high-functioning symbiotic ones. My time was respected and sought after and expensive.”

But I don’t listen to the little voice. Instead, I give her a distant nod, and she rises, wordlessly, moving on. If I take it, he will only hand it back to her. He’ll explain he’s a doctor. And that I’m not well. I have water in my hand luggage anyway. I have learned to be prepared.

Out of medical school, there’s a kind of joke that you pick the specialty that you need the most help with. Well . . . my beautiful “mommy” killed herself after my rich “daddy” left us for another woman.

Make of that oversimplification what you will. My stomach groans. I was too nervous to eat this morning. Now I peruse the in-flight lunch menu as he types away next to me. A suppressed giggle reaches us from across the aisle and draws both of our gazes.

A young couple, hands intertwined, whispers over the lowered seat barrier between them. Her hair falls in soft, tousled waves over a smart pantsuit; he’s ruddy cheeked in cashmere and chinos. On their clasped hands I pick out the bright glint of two fresh rings.

Sebastian sees them too.

Without looking back to me, he slips his hand into mine, and I have to wonder for the thousandth time what he thinks our relationship actually is now.


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