The Swans
Michaela Florio

He puts his phone face down, so I won’t see her texts. I pretend not to see him do it, instead focusing on the acres of land his new studio is on. I pick at the wooden Adirondack chair.

“You should come camping with me this weekend,” Joe says.

“Really? I thought she was going…”

My voice trails off. I continue looking out past the banister to the intersection where the manicured lawn and tall grasses meet. I pushed for this, and I knew I had no right to go. For the past two years, we’d made a tradition of camping at Putnam Pond, but this year is different. We aren’t together—my doing—but we can’t seem to leave each other alone. We had already fought about this trip, and I finally stopped asking, accepting that I wouldn’t be tagging along.

“I want to go with you. Or I’m going by myself.”

I turn to face him now.

“Are you sure?”

He takes my hand, but my eyes dart across his face, searching. He needs to say it.

“I want to go with you.”

I feel relief and, for the first time in months, something like happiness. We stay sitting like that for a while, enjoying the silence, ignoring the vibrations of his phone.

It steals up on me. It always does, that never ending sadness. My heart starts to break, sever in cracks along the arteries and ridges. The sadness overtakes me and I can’t shake it. I stand, leaning slightly over the banister. Joe remains behind me, watching. The sadness is growing, spreading through my bones with each breath I exhale. There is no lifting this. It has devoured me whole—relentlessly—for eleven months now. Nothing can help me. Not even Joe.

I have stayed too long.

Joe gets up and stands next to me. I angle my body forward so he can’t see my face. He sighs, hands me my keys, and I follow him slowly down the porch steps and get in my car. He lingers, leaning in through my open window. I don’t want to leave him, but there isn’t anything left to say, so I shrug under his gaze.

“I’m bumming,” I say.

“I know. What do you need?”

Joe’s seen this in me before, he knows how to crawl into a closet with me and hold me as I struggle against him, ripping at my own skin.

“No,” I say, clearing my throat, choking at the words. “No, I just need to go I think. I don’t know what’s wrong with me.”

We both know what’s wrong, but he nods and walks back up the steps to the porch, and I pull onto the freeway, letting the tears come.

The sadness racks my frame. I am being broken from the inside, like how you snap a chicken bone, a steady grip and then a sharp pull. Splintering me open.

I pull over on I-684 and sob, shoulders shaking, body dissolving under its own weight. A pulling, and pulling, and gone.

I’m sorry, I text.

For what?

I stare at his reply.

For crying. Idk what happened. I just got sad. My heart is breaking. I thought it was so pretty and nice there and then suddenly it started to make me sad.

This isn’t the first time.

Months ago, the world took on gray and I thought I would be drowned in it. I thought if I returned home for a month—back to Alaska to live among real nature, not the uninspiring tick-infested woods of New York—I’d be alright. But for the first time in my life, Alaska provided no solace. I threw myself into her, clinging to rock faces and trudging through thick marsh, falling into the smell of earth, rich and decaying, dragging my body through knee-deep silty mud and glacial water, but I was dying. And if Alaska couldn’t save me, nothing could. The sadness spread, and as I stared out at the speed and power of the Susitna River, I imagined what it would be like to be lullabied by its horrific waters, the current churning my body downstream under Denali’s shadow. The frigid arctic waters called to me and if I had to die, I was going to be swallowed whole, emptied and sunk, bones barnacled.

When I made the decision to disappear, it felt as natural as taking a sip of water. I was too far gone. The knife, stolen from the kitchen, which I had taken to carrying with me, hiding under my pillow and mattress, had slipped into my skin so painlessly that I was shocked when I watched my skin peel apart, dark red spilling over until my arm dripped with it. I felt nothing. That, of course, was the problem.

Now, I feel too deeply. My Jeep shakes as tractor-trailers rush past.

Because you let your guard down.

yeah. what an idiot I am. I’m going to Wampus I think. I need the swans. somewhere pretty.

What I really mean is, “Somewhere to die, finally.” Somewhere alone. I don’t have clarity any longer. There is no will to live, no thrill. The world is gray and I regret not following through the first time, continuing to cut and slice, to sink under the frigid waters of the Gulf of Alaska.

I have Joe’s jumper cables in my car. The perfect noose.

you’re not an idiot. gotta let yourself feel sometimes. You hold everything in.

I don’t respond. There is nothing left to say.

I have stayed too long.

I drive to Wampus Pond. I had texted Joe, swans. Plural. I knew there wouldn’t be any. Joe and I had been to the pond a while ago and seen the swans float idly across the surface, sleeping in the reeds, their elegant necks tucked under their wings. Back in January, when I hastily ended things, when I was spiraling without realizing, when my mania peaked and I told Joe I was moving back to Alaska, and I told him we had to end—the swans weren’t there. Winter was here and they were gone. When we started sleeping together again, the swans were back with a nest. For weeks, I would secretly go there and watch them. When I fooled around with someone else and Joe found out, I watched as the water rose and the nest disappeared. The swans swam lethargically across the surface of the pond, or remained unmoving, hidden in the reeds. Finally, only one swan remained.

Then none at all.

Isn’t it funny how little things like that can break a heart in two?

I knew that swans mate for life and I would catch myself crying at the mere thought of it. I would hide in the bathroom at work, texting Joe such things as, poor fucking swan, or, I wish I had never seen either of them, I can’t deal with this. I texted this before Alaska, when everything hurt, but the colors weren’t fully faded yet.

Now, as I pull into the parking lot, I see two swans across the far side of the pond, lazily hugging the shoreline. There’d been no swans for months. I step out of my car and rush through the woods to a small alcove where they used to hide. No swans there. I push farther, through webs and thick-thorned bushes, until I am as far as I can go, my sandaled feet covered in mud and wet from the creek that feeds the pond. Still, there’s no lone swan hidden away. So, it’s them.

The two swans are back. I sit and watch them for close to an hour as kayakers come and go, as a few people pull up their boats. I stay as the sky colors, touching the pond in light pink and peach. I start to laugh. The jumper cables remain coiled in the trunk, forgotten.

I want to take it as a sign that Joe and I are back. That maybe we can figure this out. Be happy. Or really, that I can be happy. That I can figure it out. I don’t know how to fix any of it. I love Joe. I love the swans. But that dark cloud has seeped into my mind and heart. Unless I can fix that, nothing will work. I will walk into that pond with my swans or I’ll hang in that little alcove. Joe will grieve and move on. The swans will live and die, as they are meant to do. And things will continue on.

But those swans—how hopeful they make me feel, and how dangerous that hope is.


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