When I think of Disneyland, I remember his threats of suicide. I’d already let a comment about my “gaudy” Minnie Mouse hairband pass. But somewhere between Fantasyland and Main Street, something inside of me had snapped. Browsing for a suitable gift for my beloved Granda, he had become increasingly impatient. In a tiny shop, warm with July humidity and the cloying smell of candy floss, he’d grabbed my arm and hissed at me to hurry up, telling me to stop being so selfish and to think of him. I stood rigid with shock, shaken by his anger and mesmerised by the sight of the money Granda had pressed into my hand before the holiday, money “to treat yourselves”. Looking up at the tins of fudge I’d been contemplating, the thought of my Granda, my family, so far away from his cold control, made me long to run as far away from him, from the holiday, as fast as I could. Instead, I walked past him to pay for the confectionary I’d grabbed at random.
Before him, I wanted a relationship so badly that he seemed like the perfect answer to a prayer that had been on repeat since I was 15. I wanted a man like the heroes in my favourite books and films; a passionate, tortured Heathcliff, or a dashing and exciting Westley. “F” did not have Heathcliff’s kind soul or the good heart that Westley possessed. It cannot be said that he set my heart alight when I met him as an impressionable seventeen-year-old. Rather, he grew on me. Or the idea of him did.
What attracted me, really, was how nice he was. As my friend, he was gentle and kind and caustically funny.
As my boyfriend, he was cold, conceited and a control freak.
I can vividly recall packing my suitcase for that holiday. I felt like some pathetic child bride being shipped off to an ogre. The sense of dread was so strong that I if I close my eyes, I can feel it again; an oily weight curled in my belly. He had planned every aspect of the holiday, my one request, asked in a small voice, was that we go to Disneyland for a day; who could be miserable in Disneyland?
On that thundery day in Disneyland, my stomach turned when I saw the expression on his pale face outside the shop. His face was a mask of disbelief that I had not immediately followed him out of the shop. The plastic handles of my shopping bag were sticky in my palms. Hoping to distract him, I looped my arms over his shoulders, trying to ignore the tense muscles and his flinch. He shrugged me off. Walking several paces in front of me, I studied the back of his head; the crumpled collar of his plaid shirt; the piece of hair that stuck up at the very back, something he thought adorable.
After walking in silence, he gestured to me to sit on a bench beside him. The parade marched by us as he told me he didn’t think he could love someone like me anymore. When I wouldn’t stop crying, he got even angrier, telling me to stop it, I was making a scene. On that bench, I didn’t cry for him. I cried for myself, I cried for my family, who would be so upset if they knew what was going on, I cried for my Granda, who had jokingly told him to take care of me, I cried for every stupid assumption I had made about being in a relationship. I was only slightly aware of a concerned French woman offering me a tissue and asking me something in a language I didn’t understand, apart from her obvious kindness. Realising that I wasn’t going to wipe my eyes as quickly as I had done previously, he paced up and down. I used my tears to buy time, calculating how quickly I could get to the airport. “F”, sensing I had had enough, whispered to me that I left him no choice but to kill himself. He simply could not take me anymore. In a detached way, I wondered what he planned to do; step out in front of Mickey’s toon car? Let himself be trampled under the one-mile-an-hour parade? Further enraged by my bewildered expression, he took off up the street at a rapid pace, dodging balloons and pushchairs. Resigned to the mess we had created, I wearily tried to catch up with him. Slowing down eventually, he lowered his head, in a dramatic, exaggerated manner, onto one of the lacy white pillars that were everywhere.
As I approached him, he raised his head. “I’m giving you one more chance; if you turn things around and I see you making an effort, I’ll let things go. I’m willing to forget your behaviour. Just this once” Control held me in an invisible vice.
I said nothing adverse to him. I kept myself a bland, white mirror, my sole purpose to reflect what he wanted me to be. I went on whatever attractions he wanted me to, for once appreciating the distraction of terrifying drops and twists; anything to take me away from him for a few minutes, to try and bank the shame and internal disgust.
After venting his anger, he could afford to be generous and told me we could go wherever I wanted. I did not ask to go to any more shops.
The sticky heat of the day had cooled as we moved towards evening. The clouds and ensuing rain had broken some of the humid tension.
In the short while I remained with him after that holiday, he would use the threat of suicide against me many times. It never lost its effect, for I feared he would be the boy who cried wolf. When he sensed me beginning to tire of this threat, when the shock factor lessened, he took it a step further; empty tablet boxes and rambling messages; contrived half-smiles with tears in his eyes; a certain way of saying goodbye that was loaded with intent.
Later on, I would finally summon my courage and cut myself free of his control, his torture, his threats and his insults. It would take time, but I would savour freedom and love it even more for knowing it was hard-won.
When the day came that I finally cut my ties with him, one would imagine I would feel relieved, light, free. I felt none of those things. Years of being oppressed, of being told that my opinions, my values, were wrong, had me emerging from the relationship like some veteran prisoner of war coming out of their cell; pale-faced and shaky, blinking up at the sun. It would take me several years to get back to myself; to freely express myself as I once had; to laugh and not give a damn if it were being scrutinised.
Later, much later, I went back to Disneyland. I chose the gaudiest pair of Minnie Mouse ears possible. I ate sugar until my stomach ached. I was a lot heavier, but my heart was light. I smiled and laughed the whole time.
I was in love with freedom.
Caitríona Murphy lives in Dublin, Ireland. Her work has been published in the RTÉ 100 words 100 Books collection and one of her stories was shortlisted for the 2015 “Beyond the Axis” competition with an honourable mention. Caitríona’s story recently finished second place in the Mash Stories competition. Caitríona has contributed work to May’s International Literary Festival. Caitríona’s work has been published in Rollick Magazine for the “Frantic” issue and in several online anthologies.