The Silent 1%
Matilda Stevens sat at her vanity rubbing lotion on her naked body, save for the emerald necklace around her neck. She hated every facet of each gemstone, but had promised her husband that she’d wear it tonight.
Fresh out of nursing school, Matilda had thought that she was starting her dream life. She had married her high school sweetheart, Ray, and they had a beautiful baby boy named Josh. Together they bought a nice, sturdy little house in a good part of town, and her car was paid for – which was more than her mother was ever able to accomplish. And thanks to the Louisiana TOPS scholarship program, she didn’t have any debt from nursing school, and Ray didn’t need a degree to work offshore. On paper, it all seemed wonderful.
Yet, there was a cloud of boredom that hung onto her memories like a thin veil, allowing her to remember certain tolerable moments, all the while masking the countless hours sitting in the dark watching cable and sipping Pepsi spiked with whiskey. But she knew that if she had really been deeply, profoundly happy, she wouldn’t have run off with a married surgeon.
As she started touching up her pedicure with blood red shellac, she began to compare the two men who bookended her life thus far. Sure, she had loved Ray…but it was more of an obligatory love. Their lives were routine and dull. Dates were always at the same Mexican restaurant in Opelousas, and seriously, how many more chimichangas did he expect her to eat? And the obligatory sex was quiet and quick. Ray never lasted longer than three minutes, and he couldn’t find her clitoris even when she dumbed down the process for him – putting his finger there and directing his stroking. He found the entire thing emasculating. Matilda found it ridiculous. And the only thing really keeping her there was her son. She didn’t want him to grow up in a broken home like she had. She didn’t want him to have to experience a divorce, or a loveless marriage.
Dr. Paul Stevens offered a solution to all of it. Of course, she resisted at first. He already had quite the reputation as the hospital playboy. She had turned down his advances for months before finally caving. He seemed to be obsessed with winning her over – giving her fancy presents, taking her to the best restaurants from Lafayette to New Orleans and demanding that she be the scrub nurse for all of his surgeries. And sex with Paul was anything but boring. The first time he went down on her the resulting orgasm almost caused her to black out. That had never happened before – and god, did she want more.
Plus, he came from money, and had lots of it, especially as the finest cardio-vascular surgeon in the state. His schedule was booked years in advance, yet he still lived from paycheck to paycheck – being sure to spend every dollar he earned on private jets, expensive mansions and even more decadent vacations. Paul liked to boast about his “rockstar lifestyle,” and Ray paled in comparison. Her “dream life” with Ray began to look small, pathetic and tired as Paul promised her utopia.
To prove his devotion to Matilda, Paul divorced his wife and paid her off so that she’d go quietly (and quickly). He then moved Matilda and son into his sprawling mansion in one swoop and gave her two credit cards to stock up on anything they might need.
One moment Matilda was living on a shoestring budget, collecting coupons; the next she was riding in a private jet to Paul’s yacht in Fort Lauderdale. And the gifts never stopped coming – Aston Martins, diamonds, romantic getaways around the world. But none of it was free – every single instance of kindness or generosity came with a price.
She had won custody of her son (Ray got visitation), but she also adopted Paul’s children as their new stepmother. Suddenly, her life revolved around them. Within weeks of their nuptials, she had traded in her scrubs for a life as a stay-at-home mom.
There were soccer games, horseback riding lessons, class parties, PTA meetings – all for three children she hardly knew. They’d pile up in her Mercedes G-Wagon and rush around town from one appointment to the next. And those kids gave her hell. Between the pranks and the pet snake that always made its way into her underwear drawer, opening up the Xanax Paul brought home for her was about all she could manage.
Then there were the dinner parties, political functions and fundraisers. If she didn’t meet Paul’s standards, he wouldn’t speak to her all night. If she looked too sexy, he’d scold and threaten her. If she spoke with another man, he’d fly into a jealous rage. And he held his money over her head, threatening even to stop providing for Josh. And more often than not, he threatened to “throw her back out on her ass” if she didn’t meet his impossibly high standards. She was quite literally damned if she did what he said, and damned if she didn’t.
Matilda was expected to be the Barbie on a pedestal – something to be admired and not heard. Paul told her what she could wear, how she should style and color her hair, what makeup she could wear and when. He had her get breast implants and inject her lips for optimal plumpness. He ordered chemical peels for her skin and Botox for her wrinkles (they were hardly noticeable). There were liposuction appointments, consultations for her cellulite and specialists for her eyebrows. In this new life, image was everything and she had to meet Paul’s ideal.
And Paul’s ideal was not a woman with a profession. As far as he was concerned, she stopped being a nurse the moment they were married. He wouldn’t tolerate the idea of people thinking that he couldn’t provide enough for his wife. And Matilda got the feeling that he didn’t want his wife at his hospital, watching over his every wink or grin.
Her anxiety got worse and worse. She knew how their relationship had started, and she couldn’t imagine her life without him. After all, where would she go? What would she do? Josh was in a great school that she certainly couldn’t afford on her own. Since she signed a prenup, she knew she wouldn’t walk away with as much cash as his last wife. And the idea of maintaining her lifestyle – and her plastic surgery – kept her up at night.
She feared that his long nights at the hospital were being spent with another nurse, or another woman with perkier breasts, a smaller waist and fuller lips. Matilda had nightmares of him pleasuring other women in the on-call room. Before long, she wanted proof that he’d been at work. She started checking his calendar, billing statements and phone – looking for evidence that might not even exist.
The worst part was that they rarely made love anymore. Sex with Paul was about as rare as seeing him sober past 6pm. She smelled his clothes for strange perfumes and began to show up unannounced at his office in the vain attempt to grab his attention, or lunch – whichever she could get. She begged him for a baby – a child of their own. She thought it would bring stability to their marriage, or at least make him spend more time at home. She repeatedly asked him to see a fertility specialist with her. And at 42, she knew she was cutting it close – and that biological clock just kept ticking.
But the pressure only pushed Paul further and further away. He started coming home even later, if he came home at all. And when he was home, he was heavily intoxicated and unable to keep even the slightest erection, as if purely out of spite, she thought.
Matilda was at the end of her rope when she finally got the nerve to book a fertility appointment for herself. She looked every part the desperate housewife – put together, but shattered beneath the façade of polished hair and skin. It didn’t take much to push her over the edge.
She felt as if she were under water when the diagnosis was announced, catching random words, such as serious, STD, tumor, hysterectomy, immediately. She texted Paul, “They found a tumor in my uterus. I have to have an emergency surgery before it ruptures the uterine wall. Also – you need a full work up for STDs. Thanks hun.”
He showed up at the hospital with an emerald necklace to “make it up to her.”
She thought about leaving him. She wanted to. But somehow she found herself accepting his gift, and even worse, his apology. She didn’t want to make a big fuss over the whole thing, and he preferred it that way. “There’s no need to share this embarrassment with everyone,” he cooed.
Matilda couldn’t help but acknowledge that her charming husband had robbed her of the last thing she had left that was hers. And in exchange all she got were cold, lifeless stones chiseled and formed to meet someone else’s specifications.
She faked a smile as he slid her new collar around her neck. “It’s beautiful,” she said. “You’re beautiful,” he corrected.
Matilda wanted a divorce, but each and every lawyer pointed out that she would have to leave with nothing. The prenup was iron clad and every asset was in Paul’s name. They didn’t even have a joint checking account. Instead, Paul gave her a monthly allowance. And Josh’s fate would hang in the balance as well. Paul had adopted the child and raised him as one of his own. He now had rights to guardianship. Matilda would have to fight for the right to raise her own child if she left. She would either have to stay, knowing that Paul was slowly devouring her soul, or leave with nothing and start over on her own.
Paul took her home after the surgery, but only kept up his façade for about a week. Soon after, he was ready to throw another one of their infamous fundraisers for the hospital. The catering company had been downstairs all day, leaving Matilda to soak in the tub and reflect on her situation. She didn’t want to lose her son, but she also didn’t want to lose herself. Her choices had cost every ounce of her being, and she didn’t want to spend the rest of her life crying into her Merlot waiting for Paul to stumble home at random hours reeking of scotch.
After her skin had absorbed the lotion, Matilda slipped into her little black Chanel dress. Her hair and makeup were flawless, but she could barely recognize her empty shell of a reflection. The perfect life Paul had promised was waiting downstairs, but her hand hesitated above the doorknob. She wanted to run, kicking and screaming away from those people, especially Paul. The voice in her head was pounding, “Stay or go? Stay or go?” With a deep breath, she turned the knob.
A.J. Sørensen is an actor, playwright and writer. She is the co-founder of Words by Sørensen and lives in Logan Square with her partner in crime. Sadly, they do not have a corgi.