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Breathing Underwater June 8, 2011

Posted by Kate in Domestic Abuse, Teenage Relationships, What We're Up To.
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Breathing Underwater Cover

Oftentimes art can be an effective instructional tool.  Breathing Underwater is a novel by Alex Flinn which tells the story of a teenage couple in Florida whose relationship becomes violent.  The book is used in the Love Is Not Abuse curriculum and is required summer reading before enterring ninth grade in Rhode Island.

The protagonist, Nick, is not the usual heroic type.  There are times when the reader won’t like Nick.  He’s a sophomore in high school who is navigating the uncharted waters of being a boyfriend for the first time.  He can be jealous, petty and even cruel.  His girlfriend Catlin is attractive and talented yet lacking in self-esteem.  Their union is peppered with intoxicating tender moments of first love, but dominated by Nick’s control issues.

While the story can be heavy handed at times, it is an effective teaching aid about what is not a healthy relationship.  Nick wants to separate Caitlin from her friends, is controlling, calls her names – some of the warning signs of a potentially violent relationship.

Excerpt:  In the novel, Nick recounts his relationship with Caitlin (also called Cat), whom he abused physically, verbally, and emotionally for most of their relationship. In this scene, Caitlin and Nick, who have been dating for a few months, are in Nick’s car, driving over a long two-lane bridge. Caitlin has just told Nick that she feels they need to talk about the way he treats her. Nick fears that she is going to tell him that she wants to end the relationship.


“I heard you. I’m deciding how to respond.” She could not leave me. As I hit the word respond, I pulled to the left, veering into the southbound lane. Then I floored it past three cars. A southbound Volvo station wagon slammed its brakes within yards of us. The driver was honking, yelling. I pulled back into the northbound lane and flipped him off. I looked at Caitlin. Her mouth hung in mid-scream. I laughed.

“Do you trust me, Cat?” She was silent. I leaned closer. “Did I ever tell you about my mother?” Caitlin recovered enough to shake her head no, and I said, “I was four, five, I’d lie awake nights, listening to her and my dad fighting, him hitting her.” I looked at Caitlin. “You want to hear this?”

She nodded.

“I thought we’d pack up and leave someday, her and I. I lived for that day.” On the wheel, my knuckles were white. “Then, one morning, I wake up, and she’s gone, never came back. She ran from the monster and left me there with him.”

Caitlin removed her sunglasses. “I’m sorry, Nick.”

“So you talk about trust, it’s pretty important. I mean, when the one person you trust just picks up and leaves…”

Caitlin’s hand slipped across my shoulder. I tried to shrug her off, swerving left into traffic, then back. Terror filled Caitlin’s eyes. Her nails ripped my flesh. “Trust me, Cat?” She could not leave me. I swerved again. “’Cause if you haven’t figured it out, life doesn’t mean much to me. Without you, it’s worthless.”

A flock of seagulls headed across my windshield. She could not leave me. I swerved again, this time counting three before I veered back. She could not leave me. Caitlin screamed at me to stop.

“What’s the matter?” When she didn’t answer, I swerved again. “Oh—this. Maybe you’re right.” I straightened the wheel, looking beyond her to the orange and green water east of the bridge. Silence. I didn’t swerve. Nothing. We were halfway across. Caitlin relaxed.

Suddenly, I said, “Think I could make a right here?” Right was into water. I made like I’d do it, crash through the guardrail, then down. Caitlin screamed. She grabbed for the wheel. I shoved her away so her fingers clawed the air. She tried again, gripping both my hands. The car swerved left into the path of a Bronco towing a boat. I pulled it back. My mind knew what she was doing, but my eyes didn’t. I couldn’t see her. She was shrieking. God, shut up! Her voice deafened me, and it was all around, in my ears, making me lose all control. She tried to grab the wheel. Blind and deaf, I drove, sun hot on my face. I had to get her off me. God, I just had to get her off me. Get her off me! Get off me! Get off!

Next thing I knew, I was driving on land. I couldn’t tell you whether it was minutes or hours later. Caitlin hung across the seat, head cradled in her fingers. My hand throbbed, and I knew I’d hit her. I’d hit her. I was tired. She’d worn me out, but the anger inside me dissolved, replaced by that regret. But I’d had to stop her. She’d been irrational, overwrought, shouldn’t have touched the wheel. She could have killed us. I looked at her. The seat was the length of a football field. Caitlin faced the window. She was so beautiful. Ahead was a red pickup with a Jesus fish. It was going at a good clip, but when we reached the next passing zone, I overtook it and a few other cars. Cat stiffened. I merged back into traffic and reached to stroke her hair.

She lifted her head, cautious as a runner stealing home, and stared.

“Are you all right, Caitlin?” I asked.  When she didn’t answer, I repeated the question.

She shook her head. “You hit me.”

I told her no. I hadn’t. I mean, she was grabbing the wheel. We’d almost creamed the Bronco. I had to get her off me before we got killed.

“Because you were driving off the bridge,” she said.

I laughed and said she knew me better. . . I’d never do it for real. Besides, we’d have crashed the guardrail, and I’d have gotten killed for wrecking the car.

“But you hit me, Nick.” She leaned out the window toward the sideview mirror to see if her cheek was getting red.

And it was. I didn’t expect it to be red, but it was—a little. I hadn’t hit her hard, just enough to get her off me. I said, “Don’t you know you shouldn’t grab the wheel when someone’s driving?”

“But I thought—“

She was pretty shaken. Mad maybe? I pulled her close. “Sorry I freaked you out, Kittycat.  I forget you aren’t used to guys. You don’t know we play rough sometimes.” She kept protesting, and I said, “You know what I was thinking? I wanted to buy you a ring. You know, like a symbol, since we’re going together. What’s your birthstone?”

Still, she stared like her life was flashing before her eyes. “You hit me, Nick.”

I kissed her. She drew away, and I pulled her back. “Your birthday’s in February, right?  I’ll ask the jeweler what the stone is.”

I held her close until she stopped struggling. The sun was down, but it wasn’t dark enough for a moon, and we crossed bridges connecting the islands, Big Pine Key, Plantation Key, Key Largo. Then we drove through mainland Miami a while. When we reached home, the sky above Rickenbacker Causeway was black, and Caitlin slept on my shoulder.

For the Amazon page and reviews, please click here.

For a teacher’s guide from the author’s website, please click here.



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