When You’re Unhappy and You Don’t Know It
atalya, we need to talk.”
“Talk?” I barely bother to look up from the list I’m making. This is my first Saturday off in months. No brunches, wedding receptions or engagement parties to cater. Rick knows or should know by now t hat when I have time to myself I like to sit around in a comfy pair of sweats and plan out my week, my month, my year in my planner. But still, duty calls. “Talk about what, babe?”
“I don’t know how to say this, but ...”
When my boyfriend, my very nearly fiancé, tells me that he’s moving out after living together for almost three years, the thing that pops into my head isn’t “Oh my God, he’s breaking up with me ... Maybe I should pay attention to what he’s saying.”
What I’m thinking is “I really need to redecorate this place.” Mentally, I begin to rearrange my furniture. I have already rid myself of the beat-up Pier One white wicker from my girlhood bedroom and family hand-me-downs (particle board does not an heirloom make) for real grown-up gal décor. I have it all nicely put together—home, career and personal life, all in order.
“This is really hard for me ...”
When Rick moved in, after four months of serious dating, all he brought with him were a cardboard box of clothes, a vast collection of cult movies and related paraphernalia, and one beat-up medium-sized saucepan and wooden spoon that made up all his cooking and eating utensils. At the time I admired that he traveled so light.
“You know I care for you. A lot ...”
I’ve always been the practical one in my family, especially when things are falling apart. And I’ve never been one to let things fall apart, no, never completely. I’ve mastered the art of rearranging, reorganizing, and reconceptualizing. (Is that a word?)
“It’s not you, it’s me, Natalya.” Rick looks into my eyes. He knows I have a soft spot for his. Despite the fact that he’s grown doughy around the middle, he still has huge hazel eyes with long dark brown lashes that melt my heart, most times. “It’s me, please believe me.”
That snaps me back into reality. I don’t believe him; of course he thinks it’s me. And it’s not just because I’m Catholic and think everything is my fault. The fact is, Rick has never been one to take full responsibility for anything. Forgive me for finding it surprising that he’s going to start now.
wants to break up with
. I always thought it would be the other way around. And so did most of his friends, all my friends and both our families. I must have misheard him. “Exactly what are you telling me?”
“I don’t know how to say this, but ...”
Rick is now twenty-nine, we both are. According to my planner we should be announcing our engagement in the very,
near future and be married two months after my thirtieth birthday next year. I hate it when special occasions and holidays are bunched together.
“This is really hard for me ...”
How many times after seeing the disappointment in my parents’ faces had I reassured myself there’s nothing,
unusual about two adults living together and not being married in San Francisco—it’s even expected. Who in their right mind would get married without living together first? Who’s that crazy? Not me, that’s for sure.
“You know I care for you. A lot ...”
I told my parents we were going to get married, just as soon as Rick finishes his master’s. Of course I didn’t tell Rick this. Who needs that kind of pressure? I also haven’t gotten around to telling my folks that Rick dropped out of grad school two years ago.
“It’s not you, it’s me, Natalya.”
“Is this about your parents and what happened the last time we went over?” I interrupt him, choosing to ignore that he seems to have just repeated himself, and I sat through the whole thing again and still didn’t pay complete attention to what he was saying.
“No. No. It’s not at all about them,” he says which, of course, leads me to believe that it’s a little bit about them. “It’s not about anything like that.”
Though it never came up directly, we both knew that his parents weren’t thrilled with the fact that I’m not white. His father’s only topics of oration ranged from anti-Castro tirades to bitching about NAFTA. His mother’s dinner table chitchat was limited to which of Rick’s old girlfriends was still single or newly divorced. I’d manage to endure in silence—I was raised Catholic, after all—but this last time we had to have dinner with his parents, I snapped. When his mom brought up Heather/Crystal/Tiffany, I innocently asked Rick if she was the one who gave him crabs in his senior year. They didn’t even offer us leftovers when we left shortly thereafter. We both know the race, cultural, whatever thing has always mattered and, I know if I’m willing to commit the next twelve hours, I can make Rick admit it, too.
“Are you sure?” Desperation begins to creep into my voice. I clear my throat and blink back tears.
“It’s entirely my fault, Natalya.” Rick does the leg jiggle thing that drives me crazy. I put my hand down, hard, on his knee to get him to stop or at least slow it down.
“Entirely your fault? Not mine? You’re saying this is all about you?” I sputter, feeling like a fool.
“No, no. It’s me. I just need ... space.”
“Space? Space? You want to break off an almost four-year relationship because of space?” I ask incredulously. Men never need “space.” If they want some time apart, they watch endless reruns of
, play computer games, or, if they’re not Rick, start putting in extra hours at work. They do anything except think about the need to articulate their desire for space. “That’s what you need? Space?”
“Yeah,” Rick says sheepishly.
“Space for what?” In my opinion this is a valid question. It is, after all, his reason or at least the reason he’s giving me for this breakup.
“I don’t know, space. Just space,” he says turning defensive. What, am I making him uncomfortable? Too friggin’ bad!
“You already said that. Explain it to me because I would really love to hear what you mean by
. Really, tell me! Do you want more room in the bathroom medicine cabinet or do you want to date other women? Space means a lot of things, Rick.”
He flinches. He’s not used to me losing my temper. I’m not used to me losing my temper. It’s something I make a point of not doing. Until now. Three years and four months and five days of being levelheaded, being the grown-up and the responsible one in our relationship is coming to an end and I don’t care if he finds it unattractive or scary.
“I don’t know ... I just feel I need more space.” Rick says digging his hands into his ratty jean pockets. I hate those jeans, always have. I even tried to toss them out once, but he fished them out of the trash bin and put them on. Without washing them.
“I thought we made a point of giving each other plenty of space? How much more space could you want? Especially considering the space you’ve been occupying for the past few years is technically
space but I’ve never, ever held it against you. Wasn’t it part of our
? You do your thing and I do mine and each of us is happy and fulfilled and, how did you put it? Oh, yeah, we both enjoy an autonomous, yet
Rick shrugs. Obviously he thought his needing space would settle the issue for both of us. He wisely keeps silent because I’m on a roll.
“What is it that you told me last week? How cool it was that each of us was so OK with our agreement, our commitment to each other. And how it was so cool that we could live the way we wanted to and not have to worry about what anyone thought. Isn’t that what you told me?” I say, trying not to whine or rant or rage, but I can feel the effort making my eyes bug out.
“That wasn’t last week, Natalya, it was last year,” Rick says in a voice that makes me think he may have been thinking about space for a while.
“Yeah, well, you still said it.” I sit back and cross my arms over myself. Was it that long ago that I last checked into the state of things between us? I know I’ve been busy, but it’s his fault, too. He’s so laid back about things like who makes more money, who’s on top, I just thought he was going with the flow as usual.
“We’re just different, Natalya,” Rick says. I guess he’s through explaining things to me.
“Different? Like I’m an adult and you’re ... you’re ...” I could go many different ways here, but why make myself look petty and bitter? Even though that’s the way I feel. “... you’re you?”
“You know what I mean.” Rick is starting to look exasperated and annoyed with me. He has some balls. “Natalya. We want different things out of life. I want different things.”
“What different things?”
“I don’t know, Natalya. What do you want me to say? It’s just not me. This is just not me,” Rick says, continuing to be abstract.
“It was you for years and now it’s not? Now all of a sudden you gotta be you and you can’t do that with me?” If I phrase my question the right way, Rick may spit forth some nugget that will explain this, and I can then go live the rest of my life in peace. Is that too much to ask him to do?
“Natalya, it’s been happening for a while.” Rick shuffles over to stand by the window.
“Oh,” is all I can say. That’s pretty concrete. Well, of course I knew things weren’t perfect between us, but I never expected it this. I’m usually so organized, so perceptive. I always know what’s going on in my life and Rick, like it or not,
a part of my life, an important part. And I thought I was an important part of his.
“Look, Natalya this is hard for me, too, but I have to leave. It’s just not ... me. I mean, it’s me, not you.” Rick wrings his hands and gives me a pleading look. He wants me to be nice. Yeah, right, and maybe he wants me to fix him a sandwich and then rub his feet while he finishes breaking up with me.
“So when are you planning on leaving?” If he says he needs a couple of weeks to get things together I’ll throw him and his videos out the window. But if he needs a couple of weeks, maybe there’s some hope of working something out. If I move some commitments around, I could block out an hour a week for couple’s therapy.
“Uh ...” Just then the doorbell rings. “Uh ...” Rick sprints for it. He opens it a crack and whispers urgently. He closes it and gives me a pained puppy look.
“Oh, Jesus Christ, you’re telling me you’re moving out like five minutes before you actually move out! This is so ... so ...
“I understand if you don’t want to be here for this.” He says hopefully.
“How damn generous of you, Rick. Spare me. Just get your crap and go!”
I sit on the couch and clutch a pillow to my chest while he lets in a couple of geeky friends from the video store. They don’t even say hi or acknowledge that I’m even in the room.
They start with Rick’s prized possessions—a rickety put-it-together-yourself unpainted shelf unit for his massive TV, state-of-the-art entertainment equipment and his beloved video collection. The unit takes up an entire wall but I tolerated it because adults in adult relationships make compromises for the sake of the relationship. His clothes are carted out in garbage bags, two of them.
“OK. So, well, I’m going now?” Rick shuffles his feet. Put some music on and it’s pretty close to his attempt at dancing.
“Are you asking me a question or stating the obvious?” I watch as Rick wanders into the kitchen. I get up and walk to the door and hold it open for him. “Your TV is out there and I know how much it hurts for you to be parted from it.”
“I guess this is good-bye.” He steps toward me like he actually thinks he can give me a good-bye kiss. I turn my face away. He steps into the doorway and looks at me. “Natalya, please—”
I slam the door in his face and go put my head down on the kitchen counter. I open my eyes and catch site of his beat-up saucepan, pathetic among my gleaming copper pots hanging off my stainless steel Williams-Sonoma ceiling rack.