Matilda and I stand together in silence, watching the sunrise in our favorite park, and the only thing I can think is “fuck this.”
The day starts with the usual routine. Get up at 4am. Drink free-trade coffee. Eat a quick breakfast. Take a bleary-eyed perusal of emails and texts on my Obama-issued flip phone..
Then I flop onto my ancient, sweat stained couch and wait, a knot forming in my stomach. I’m expecting a call from a Portland temp agency to tell me if they need me to report downtown to yet another grueling factory job.
Fuck temp work.
I end up temping because I lose my despicable Home and Garden clerk job at a shopping center known for hiring terrible management. A month before I’m let go, Michael, one of my more hated bosses, suddenly offers to train me up to be a manager there.
After months of mutual dislike, I’m bewildered at Michael’s apparent change of heart. Instead of responding to his offer, I choose to go home and have a good laugh with Matilda, who knows full well my struggles with Michael and the company.
“So he offered you a managerial position?” she prods, hours later, an oddly attentive expression on her face.
“Yes,” I reply, confused. “Isn’t that funny?”
“Not really,” Matilda whispers, looking me up and down as though she’s never seen me before.
“You know I hate this guy, right?”
Matilda nods, inching closer.
“You remember I hate this company, yes?” I laugh, nervously.
There isn’t a trace of laughter on her face, especially as Matilda breathes in my ear and begins to unbutton my shirt.
I hold her hands and back away, staring at her. “Wait. We haven’t done this for-“
“Shush,” Matilda whispers, putting her finger against my lips.
“A year,” I whisper back.
I still remember the feel of Matilda’s warm body next to mine afterwards. That should be comforting, but I keep staring at the entrance to the guest room just feet away. Matilda ends up sleeping in the guest room hours after we make love, and that’s where she continues to spend her nights after Michael fires me.
Matilda’s chosen not to share my bed for almost two years. Michael terminated me a year ago. Now, I don’t like numbers, but numbers have never broken my heart before.
The cold of a dark, rainy spring morning settles into my bones while my generalissimo, a pale tabby cat named Locutus, settles into my lap and purrs. Locutus still sleeps at Matilda’s feet. His presence tells me Matilda’s on her way out.
Matilda comes to join me on the couch minutes later, her own mug of coffee ensconced in her still trembling hands. She sits, sipping from the steaming mug for a full minute before her sharp, grey eyes finally meet mine.
“We should go to the park.” She says. No greeting. No preamble. Just a directive.
“I’m waiting for a call,” I yawn, petting Locutus with my right hand.
“You’ve already worked three days. Your government check will shrink if you work more than that.”
That much is true. We’d done the math together when I started temping. It still makes my balls itch to think about it.
“You’re right,” I sigh. “But I wish you weren’t.”
“You’re the one who showed me how this works.” She shrugs. “Blow ‘em off.”
Beneath my calloused palm, I feel Locutus’s head shifting toward my partner each time she speaks. He chirps happily each time he looks at her, and my stomach lurches. Furry little traitor!
To distract myself, I glance toward the living room window. “I don’t hear the rain anymore.”
“I know,” Matilda says with a falsely diffident sniff. “It stopped five minutes ago.”
“Then let’s go,” I snap, bounding away from the couch so suddenly, Locutus emits an aggrieved “screech.”
That’s how we find ourselves standing by a favorite haunt of mine, a duck pond in Laurelhurst park. We get there so early that we watch the sunrise, but we don’t really watch it together. Matilda stares at the sky. I peer at the ripples in the pond as one duck lazily drifts into my field of vision. The concentric circles surrounding the fowl turn orange, then golden as time passes.
Neither of us speak. We’ve agreed to “go out together” more, just “take in nature.” But this isn’t a pleasant couple’s outing at all; it’s a reckoning, and we both know it.
“Ankle deep in love.”
The lyrics of that sad Tom Petty song skim the surface of my mind the way the ducks float across “Swan Lake,” as I call it. That name stuck after my lame joke from years before.
“You know, coming here together is the only way we’ll ever see any kind of Swan Lake show.”
“That’s kind of sad,” Matilda replies with a weak chuckle.
“I guess I’m not sophisticated enough to care about that stuff.”
“I bet you’d like ballet if you gave it a chance.”
“I’ve never been into it.”
“I bet I can get you to like opera, then.”
“Really? Just because your mother sings it at her church?”
Matilda eventually convinces me to go with her to see “Nixon in China” on a cold night in downtown Portland. The show’s terrible. Though we both laugh about it for days, Matilda still treats me like a roughneck who never went to private school.
We never try another opera after that.
Small waves come toward me from the center of Swan Lake, their rhythm somehow soothing. I gaze at the water’s surface until a white room seems to fade into existence before me. A neatly arranged set of bookshelves and indoor plants stares at me cheerfully, and I shudder.
I find myself sitting on a plush, leather couch. A woman sporting a denim jacket and a green pencil skirt sits in a comfortable chair, staring at me. To my left, Matilda sits in a separate chair. The denim-clad female has posed a question to both of us, and she now sits ramrod straight like an excited child fighting not to bounce up and down while waiting for candy.
But nobody speaks. I’m confused, but too nervous to break the eerie silence. It takes a full minute before I realize Matilda’s left me to respond first. I’ve rarely spoken first or for the both of us, but I don’t notice that until this humiliating moment.
How fucking sad!
The seconds tick by on the wall clock behind the therapist. I know she means well, but I don’t want her to keep staring. My throat feels dry and tight, and I feel a heaviness in my stomach. I can’t remember her question anymore, and I can tell by the glint in her eye that she’s expecting someone to break the tension. After another minute, she sits back in her chair, and the look on her face changes to what I interpret as resigned anticipation. Between curtains of long, wavy brown hair, her large blue eyes have absorbed pitiful scenes like this before.
I used to anticipate people’s feelings. Now I sit here, unable to guess what Matilda needs from me, waiting out a therapist as though we’re in a lame spaghetti western, pistols at our hips. Worse, Matilda’s gone cold again, refusing to draw a weapon and back me up.
My mind conjurs up the voice of “the only guilty man in Shawshank,” and I begin to hear this movie character narrate my history with Matilda from my perspective. The effect is both comforting and creepy.
‘Matilda and I move in together just after college, determined to make something of our lives. We’re young and hopeful.
But the fights are always the same; they’re the end result of my love and patience stretched, like a rubber band, to the point of snapping.
“I thought you knew me better than that,” becomes an oft used phrase of Matilda’s. “If you really wanted to know, you would ask,” is another statement I begin to hear in my sleep.
I spend my entire first year with Matilda trying to know her better. However, after too many indifferent shrugs and one word answers to my queries, I begin to think she’s always bored or angry with me.
Finally, out of sheer frustration, I lose my cool. I yell, and she becomes cold and quiet, and I yell louder. Matilda seems to believe she’s above anger.
And this happens so often, I begin to doubt my own opinion, my importance, my very sanity.
Somehow, Matilda and I move past a lot of other things, but the fights remain the same. We grow up, and we start to grow apart.
Now we’re here in this room, something broken between us, and it feels as if Matilda’s just left me to hang. It’s been so long since my opinion even mattered. What the fuck do I even say now?’
The silence spirals, and the room begins to spin. I lick my lips and glance at Matilda, the woman I’ve lived and breathed with for a decade. Our chairs feel like islands drifting further and further apart in a tumultuous ocean. Matilda scowls, her lips pressed together in grim determination. She isn’t going to talk.
Matilda’s scowl puts me in mind of her older brother, Aaron.
After moving to Portland, Matilda asks me to let Aaron move in with us for a painful few months as he looks for a job. This comes after she repeatedly warns me what a “user” and “sociopath” Aaron might be. In total confusion, I refuse her shocking request, which she initially tells me I’m entitled to do.
Unfortunately, I soon acquiesce to her unexpected pleas.
However, Aaron and I get to know each other, and the three of us end up talking one night just after Aaron finishes a late job interview.
“How’re you two feeling today?” Aaron asks
“Not bad,” Matilda says, cutting across me. “You?”
Aaron gives me the slightest of smirks before glancing at his sister. He then grimaces and hitches his thumb toward her with a “get a load of this” energy.
I scramble, trying to avoid laughter at Matilda’s expense, ignoring my growing frustration at yet another of her mysterious mood swings. “I’ve been trying to lose weight for months.” Suddenly proud, I grin. “I think it’s starting to show.”
“No it isn’t,” Matilda ejaculates, shaking her head.
Rattled by her cold denial, I still press on. “But I can finally fit into my favorite blue jeans again.”
“Matty, your man’s a badass now,” Aaron suddenly proclaims with the cheerful baritone of an opera singer. “He’s totally rocking those jeans.”
The “scream whisper” fight between Matilda and me later that night is epic, my inner fire spurred by the moral support of an apparent “sociopath.”
A seismic shift seems to occur within my chest. I’ve stopped being afraid, or pretending indifference. Now I’m angry. Clenching my teeth and squinting, I glare at the therapist. She actually mouths a silent “oh,” regains her composure, and nods.
A new, more sinister quiet threatens to engulf us all. I don’t care. Matilda didn’t bring us here to heal. “She wants to prove she’s right,” I say to myself. “She’d rather be right than happy.”
“We haven’t slept in the same bed since she moved herself out of our bedroom two years ago!”
The therapist’s eyes flare, and I suddenly don’t know whether or not I said that last thought out loud.
The session starts to roll downhill like a urine stained snowball. After hearing the words, “soft place to fall” issue from the stranger-to-my-left’s lips, I scoff. Is she kidding?
I finally evict the frog from my throat, but it feels too late, and I feel unheard.
The moment Matilda and I stand to depart, I almost hurl my jacket across the room in impotent fury.
Unexpectedly, the therapist rises, closes her eyes and holds up her hands to forestall our departure. “I need to tell you both what I’m seeing right now, so we’re all on the same page.”
She turns to me first, eyes open and suddenly piercing. “Your anxiety has crippled you. It’s destroying your life, and in the context of this relationship, it’s painted you into a corner.”
My limbs jolt at her sudden candor.
Before I can lower my head like a scolded child, the therapist turns to Matilda.
“As for you, you seem extremely manipulative, and this may be the root cause of your partner’s anxiety.”
It takes everything I have not to leap up and cheer. A person I never expected to see my side of this actually glimpses the truth behind my anguish.
I stand up straighter than I have in a long time. On our way out, I don’t bother holding the office door open for Matilda. She maintains a stony silence.
The picture of the office fades from existence, and in its wake are ripples, spreading out in lazy circles around that same, sleepy duck. For one precious moment, I feel like that duck, floating in the water without an apparent care in the world. I want to baptize myself in warm, sunlit water and just float away from this life for a little while.
While contemplating new beginnings, my partner's blond head seems to float into view. Instantly, my bubble of quiet joy bursts, and the golden ripples surrounding my feathered spirit guide seem to crumble before me like shattered glass.
It’s been weeks, and we’ve not gone back to therapy. I never get to tell Matilda that I agree with the therapist’s concluding remarks about us. It only seems to matter that Matilda disagrees, for I’ve already ceded to her wishful thinking about who she is, who I am, and who we are together.
But the moment Matilda faces me in front of Swan Lake, my eyes burn with rage. I detest her downturned lips, her stupid bob haircut, her thick eyebrows that almost meet at some odd point just off center from above her enormous nose. Moreover, I loathe her snide confidence, her false humility, and her complete inability to see the damage she’s done trying to “correct” me.
I’ve struggled to own my part in this tango of missteps and broken toes for years. I’ve spoken to mentors, seen my own therapist, taken antidepressants, and had sobbing breakdowns in front of best friends. Yet it feels like I’m being punished for becoming the complacent, pliable weanie that Matilda’s forced me to be.
I’m about to reclaim myself with an earth-shattering cry to the heavens when I sense a startling shift in my universe. Shapes crystallize, and the vivid rainbow of spring colors seems to explode before my eyes. I inhale, taking in the mingled, gentle scents of nature. I hear the subdued quack of a calm duck. My heart rate slows. The golden ripples of Swan Lake reform themselves in my mind, and my anger vanishes.
I hold up my right hand and back away in calm resignation. Without pause, I do an about face and walk away from my partner, from my relationship, from the last decade of my life with all the strength and dignity I can muster.
The journey away from a ten year relationship is long, the path more winding, painful and wonderful than I can ever imagine. I’m still alive, and the universe continues to unfold as it should.
It’s not yet 4pm, and work is over for the day. Huddled against the chill, I tighten my scarf, straighten my coat, and make my way to the park. I want to find something I’ve not seen in a long time, and the crisp air and the cloudless, darkening sky beckons.
I walk to Cathedral Parkway, taking in the familiar sights and sounds of upper Manhattan. People abuzz with urgency seem to shoot by me like darting schools of fish. Car horns occasionally blair. Despite the tumult, or maybe even because of it, I smile. I’ve missed home.
As I wander through Central Park, a blonde woman in a tan pea coat walks past me, and for the first time in what feels like forever, I’m reminded of my ex. I relive her conspicuous absence the day my best friend from college drives me out of Oregon and out of her life for good. I recall my six month stint living with my savior in Illinois before I realize I hate living in the Midwest. I chuckle at the memory of hugging my father for the first time in a decade after arriving at Penn Station three years ago.
Despite the challenges I’ve faced since the breakup, I’ve moved on. I’ve dined on and regurgitated the ashes of “us” and told my story to those who would listen. I know who my friends and family are.
I’ve said my goodbyes long ago to those who matter.
I stop at my favorite spot in the park. By now the sky has turned an inky purple, and I ponder what I’ll see when I lower my gaze to its shimmering reflection at my feet. A white, pockmarked orb stares back at me, and I gasp. The water seems so still, I wonder for a shocking moment if I’ve fallen into another dimension to stand on the sky.
As if in answer to my internal query, a colossal meteor shatters the glass moon. I laugh as a turtle pokes its head through the surface of my new Swan Lake. Shimmering, ivory circles expand outward from the dark, central mass of the turtle and I freeze, recalling the day I walked away.
A smartphone vibrates in my pocket. Without hesitation, I grasp at the lifeline back to the best part of my new life.
“I’m on my way home, Kaitlin,” I say, the corners of my lips curling upward. “Want to go out for Sushi?”