Fiction: Gaslighting

By Jimmy Lis
She had to fart. It all makes sense now: all the fights; the non-sequiturs; the nights tossing and turning on the couch, playing back the events of the evening and quietly raving about the things I should have said or would say next time when the argument resumed. Somewhere between Occam’s Razor and Abu Hasan’s flatulence had lain the answer the whole time.
The constant tension she must have felt. That unnatural inhibition she imposed on her body building up in unpredictable ways and erupting through other orifices. The gas escaped her mouth in exaggerated sighs or diffused through intense glares—giving new definition to stink eye—or, most often, catapulted from her tongue as fiery words. Though she couldn’t articulate the crux of the problem, or wouldn’t let on that she could. And so, her words often came out as strings of disconnected complaints, irrelevant to the topic at hand. Unprompted barbs about inadequate birthday gifts from years past sailed by me like bullets from a hidden sniper. But it was the demon inside talking, finding memories she had suppressed along with yesterday’s gas.
Suddenly, past episodes of coy bedroom behavior have come into focus. Rushing to the bathroom for extra primping under the guise of romance—extended, secretive sessions of beauty care that would last so long I had fallen asleep by the time she reemerged—has taken on new meaning. I now see the story of our relationship like it has been emblazoned on the sky in noxious clouds of smoke from the tail of a crop duster.
Early in our marriage, I convinced my wife to go camping, though she was not what you would call “outdoorsy.” Her idea of camping had been the sleepover when she was nine years old at her friend Becky’s house. She slept in the top bunk.
Once we were married, my house became our home. And the first time the power went out at our home, my wife promptly took out her cell phone and called 911. When I walked in the room and realized what was happening, I took the phone from her. I explained to the operator that it was a simple power outage and apologized up and down.
Apparently, my wife had grown up with one of those generators attached to the house that would start up automatically if there was any interruption in the power. You know, the kind that would run all the lights, the refrigerators, and even the air conditioning, so the royal residents wouldn’t suffer any beads of sweat; the kind that would wipe your bottom for you and flush it right down the toilet without a second thought, while your neighbors accumulated bright orange cesspools in their respective toilets; the kind that would tuck you in at night and tell you everything was going to be okay, leaving a light on, of course, in case you felt parched in the night and needed to avail yourself of running water from the tap.    
“What do we do?” she asked me, trembling with nervous energy.
“We wait,” I said. “Oh, and since we’re on a well, the water won’t come back after the first time we flush the toilet.” With that, the whites of her eyes grew to illuminate the surrounding darkness.
“So, we just . . . wait?” she said.
“Well, once we light some candles in here, it might be pretty romantic. We don’t have to just . . . wait,” I offered.
And in the thralls of doing what newlyweds sometimes do best (or, at least, most often), there was an urgent rap at the front door. Rushing to pull on my pants and throw my t-shirt over my head, I skittered to the door to answer. The police had arrived. Said they were investigating a distress call from a woman who gave this location before a suspicious man took the phone away from her.
That was as close as we had ever gotten to camping before I brought up the idea a few months later. She was hesitant, to say the least. But in those early days of our marriage, it was easiest to convince her to try something, under the auspices that we needed to keep things “fresh,” so we didn’t end up like those old couples who didn’t have anything in common. We didn’t want that, right?
When we left for our camping trip, we had just celebrated our one-year anniversary. We even ate a slice of our wedding cake that we had saved in the back of the freezer for just the occasion—stale cake, a time-honored tradition. It didn’t taste quite right to me, and I felt a bit queasy afterwards. In retrospect, it’s shocking I didn’t piece these things together at the time.
The next day we settled into the family-friendly campground we had chosen, not too far from home (as she had dictated). Once we got the tent up and I started a fire, she relaxed a bit. I kept it very simple and light, so I wouldn’t spook her. This was dipping a toe into uncharted waters—a lazy river tube ride of camping, not Splash Mountain. We packed sandwiches for dinner, all the extra blankets and pillows she wanted (in addition to the sleeping bags), and even brought a few portable chargers so her phone wouldn’t die.
She didn’t end up bothering with her phone. Neither did I. Once she warmed up to the whole experience, we were really enjoying our simple time together. I brought a pint of whiskey. And even though that was far from her drink of choice, she joined me in sipping from the old-timey copper mugs that I packed. She giggled; said she felt like a cowboy.
When we got into the tent for the night, I proposed unzipping the two sleeping bags and making something like one big sleeping bag that we could share (hoping the whiskey had loosened her up enough for a roll in the hay). But she insisted on keeping to her own sleeping bag. She drew the cord tight so she was enveloped completely: just a floating head on a sack. Said she was cold.
Then, as we settled into slumber, she fired a question that came as unexpectedly as a single firework in the night without a national holiday to merit it. “What do you think your mom meant when she said . . .” I am not purposely leaving out the end of the question; I don’t remember the other half. But as you may already know, or as any married man could tell you, the end of this particular sentence doesn’t matter. The tone, the timing, and the mere mention of mother-in-law . . . this sentence was bound to land as gracefully as a gymnast with no limbs. So, the end of the sentence didn’t matter, any more than it would matter how the bomb was constructed that had blown off your fingers, leaving you to take every meal like it was a pie-eating contest. Or any more than it mattered what, exactly, I said in response that escalated the situation. Any response would be inevitably incendiary. The bomb had been programmed. Only the most highly trained professional could defuse it, and even then, if she built it with more than one red wire. . . .
She stormed out. For a tent novice, her fingers moved nimbly, unzipping the door in one clean stroke. Rage had elevated her dexterity. I chased after her to work things out. If only I knew that things were not as they appeared. Had we been married ten years, maybe I would have let it go, let her wander in the woods if that’s what she needed. But being the new husband that I was, eager to please and eager to “work on our marriage” whenever possible, I followed her.
I see now that I should have let her walk off into the woods and release that which couldn’t be contained inside, not even inside the tightly drawn nylon of her sleeping bag. Had I left her alone to freely release her demons, to ignite surrounding campfires with the distinct gaseous blend of stale wedding cake, bologna sandwiches, and whiskey (ironically, just one newt’s eye short of a love potion), then she may have calmly returned to the tent, in time. She may have given me a chance to apologize—for now that “my mother” had been invoked, it was my responsibility to apologize, of course, regardless of guilt. We may have even formed the mega sleeping bag and forayed into the “under the stars club.” But instead, I followed her. And so, she held everything inside, her legs and arms crossed tightly as I disassembled our tent in darkness, and her face twisted in agony the whole way home. Once we returned, it took her three days to clear the poisonous memories of camping.
In our second year of marriage, I turned thirty. Leading up to my birthday, my wife made me certain sultry promises. Nothing so explicit as to be crude or to undermine the sexiness of subtlety. But the die had been cast, nonetheless, with a select phrase here or there, a wink of the eye, a nibble on the earlobe, and even a seductive picture sent via text message as a sneak preview.
On the day of, we enjoyed each other’s company around the kitchen counter with a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon, as she prepared a “home-cooked meal.” While I had no idea what was frying in the various pans or stewing in the kettle on the stove, still I looked forward to a rare departure from our typical habit of takeout dining.
She lit so many candles that I couldn’t identify what food she was preparing behind the mélange of musk from Sandalwood and Grandpa’s Sweater. Then she opened the kitchen window a crack. She wanted the perfect ambiance but didn’t want to set off the smoke detector.
She left the kitchen often, as I recall. While she was off wrapping a gift, or lighting more candles in our bedroom, or slipping on something sexy underneath her clothes, I sat at the kitchen counter contemplating whether I really enjoyed wine or if I had just adopted it because it seemed like a mature drink choice of those in their thirties. I waited, sipped my wine, and started imagining what she could be planning with all this ambiance. I pictured her reemerging through the smoky mix of Balsam Forest and Coq Au Vin (?) dressed all in leather, her hair blowing in the overhead stove range fan: the perfect home-cooked remake of a Whitesnake video.
Instead, she returned from one of her sojourns to our bedroom with a large, flat package, wrapped meticulously in the kind of hefty paper with classy design that one can only procure by taking out a second mortgage to sign up for the neighbor girl’s school fundraiser.  A massive orange bow on the upper left corner bobbed up and down as she walked into the room, struggling to keep hold of the cumbersome parcel in her outstretched arms. I jumped out of my seat to assist her, grabbing the giant rectangle at the edges, just below where her white knuckles wrapped around each side, and lifted it to relieve her of the weight. She was smiling on the other side. Or perhaps grimacing.
“Go ahead, open it,” she said.
I searched for the seams to unwrap my birthday gift as delicately as possible. I was not concerned for the welfare of the paper, I just figured I should start opening gifts like a man of thirty, rather than tearing them apart like a bloodthirsty toddler. So, I unpeeled the tape from each seam, and slid the thick paper off its frame. She looked at me, eyes wide with anticipation, as I studied the picture before me. And had my internal clock been more finely tuned at the ripe age of thirty, I would have recognized that I had stared too long without a reaction.
“You don’t like it,” she said, her eyes narrowed—all the white hope fled, leaving only hazel anger.
“I . . . I love it. Thank you! This will go perfect in my office,” I said, finding as much enthusiasm as I could behind my fog of confusion.
She turned her back and walked to the stove unceremoniously. We didn’t speak a word for several minutes.
I wasn’t a material person, even back then. I didn’t expect anything for a gift. I certainly didn’t expect a nearly life-sized framed picture of John Elway. It wasn’t disapproval on my face, just shock. We lived in Michigan, where we were both raised, and I had never followed the Denver Broncos. After two years of marriage and two years of dating before that, she had to know that, right?
There would be no comeback for this kid. Not on that night. I was ungrateful, she said. My feelings for her gift were basically my feelings for her, she said. Then, through tears, she sputtered, “If we don’t know each other by now, how will we live a lifetime together?” And I thought this was a tender moment where I could agree with her on that point, while consoling her. “We’ll get to know each other . . . better every day that we’re together,” I said. And, “We can get through anything.”
I was wrong. It was a trap. I see that now. I was ensnared to the living room couch that night. I would never see what she may have prepared for us in our bedroom—candles, lingerie, a bubble bath. As I turned on the couch like a lopsided rotisserie chicken, I became convinced that my real birthday gift had been swapped at the last minute, and lay hidden in our bedroom closet: the plan A that would have made my heart sing of our forever love and would have engorged my member so, that I would have had no other recourse but to sweep the contents of the kitchen counter onto the tile floor, sending the bottle of Cabernet to shatter in a bloody mess, while the frying pans on the lit stove engulfed us in a passionate blaze of smoke, and I made love desperately to my wife on our planned eating surface.
But I got plan B: John Elway sent forth in the unfamiliar role of blocker. And I now suspect that our boudoir had not been transformed into a romantic escape, but only a haven full of secret farts.
On the third and final year of our marriage, now that camping had been crossed off the list of couples’ activities and that particular incident was far enough back in the rear-view mirror, we chose bicycling as the quality time that would eternally bond our souls in health and harmony. My wife harbored no love for cycling. Nor did I. But I was deft enough on my old mountain bike—a vestige from my university campus days, which had sat rusting on the far end of the garage.
Really it was one of my wife’s friends who stoked the idea of cycling when she approached us about a ride for charity. You know, the kind where you ride so many miles, and the children can finally afford to build their Camp of Dreams. Puzzling economics aside, the engine that drove this type of fundraiser was forged from an unbreakable alloy of guilt and peer pressure. You sign up sponsors who pledge to donate a dollar amount to said charity commensurate with the number of miles you ride. And they shake their heads in pleasant dismay as the miles pile up, all the while, saying things like, “You really dipped into my pocketbook on that one, Lance Armstrong!” or “Cost me a pretty penny there, you cyclin’ fool!”
Had it not been for that charitable event, maybe we would have kept searching for some other wholesome activity about which we could both grow passionate as we aged together: billiards, or competitive horseshoes, or drag racing. But, as things go, we agreed to join the bike ride for charity. It was for the kids, after all.
Step one was buying my wife a bicycle. Hopeful that this would be our healthy hobby ‘til death do us part, I found her a top-of-the-line road bicycle—the type with skinny tires, ergonomic design, and curved handlebars that allowed for the upper body to lean forward and rest during long rides—the perfect machine for our upcoming ride. And she seemed pleased with the easy to reach location of the water bottle holder.
I look back at our leisurely bike rides in training, and I realize those were the salad days. Early fall sunshine twinkled down on us through the oranges and yellows of the surrounding foliage, as we cruised carelessly side by side on the wide shoulders and smooth asphalt of affluent suburban streets. Or we passed each other playfully, practicing the art of drafting off the person ahead to save energy, but also challenging each other in a flirty manner, like teenagers locked in chastity belts with no other way to release sexual tension short of wrestling in a meadow.
The morning of the event, we attended the kick-off brunch: a huge spread designed for carb loading and “Getting the most miles for the kids!” said the woman with the bullhorn. We chatted with my wife’s friend and her husband over plates full of gooey, cheesy omelets, crispy hash browns, and every fresh fruit you could imagine this side of the Equator. They even had a huevos rancheros dish, and some delightful little three-bean salad that my wife seemed to really enjoy.
The weather had cooled considerably from the warm bike rides of our training sessions. This would be perfect, I thought, as we had set a goal to ride forty miles, especially ambitious for novices like us. We shoveled in the eggs, beans, and fruits, intent on making those sponsors pay—my parents, my mother-in-law, my wife’s uncle, Ted—those suckers who had staked their personal fortunes against the Camp of Dreams.
We started out at a strong pace. Our training had paid off, especially now that the temperature had dropped so. Twelve miles in and I felt great. I could tell by the smile on my wife’s face, as we passed each other now and then, that she felt the same. The stretch of highway on which we rode had a narrow shoulder, and there were hundreds of participants cycling this same route. So, we needed to stay single file, for the most part. No problem. We had practiced this. I led at first, so she could ride in my draft, easing the strain for her. Then she passed me to took the lead, and then back again, and so forth and so on. We hadn’t discussed it, or sent any signals, it had become a natural habit we had developed in our training.
Then it started to rain. What began as a sprinkle, soon escalated to a deluge, gluing my t-shirt up into my armpits. I looked back over my left shoulder. My wife was right there, keeping pace, though she was now leaning forward into the curved handlebars, with her head down so the aerodynamic tail of her helmet reached upwards to meet the rain. She looked up, and I issued a clear “come pass me” signal with a beckoning wave of my left hand. I had maintained the front position for miles at that point, and the extra drag from the rain was starting to take its toll on my body as I pedaled my rusty mountain bike harder and harder to keep moving us forward. She shook me off briskly like I had called for the curveball and her elbow just couldn’t do it this late in the game. As tired as I felt then, I couldn’t take no for an answer. So, I signaled again, with grander, more demonstrative waves of my left hand, like I was bailing out a leaky canoe to save our lives. Again, she shook me off. “C’mon!” I screamed at the lemon-wedge raindrops pelting me in the face, while puckering my mouth and my eyes against the acerbic strikes. But I knew she couldn’t hear me above the raucous applause of raindrops.
I pushed myself forward with every ounce of will, holding out hope that the rain would clear, that we would find a downhill stretch to restore our energy, and we would make it to our goal.  But the rain didn’t stop. And downhill never came. Instead, a towering uphill climb loomed ahead, growing larger as we approached like a giant arching his back as he rose from some dormant resting place below. I turned my head back to my wife once again.  She was looking straight at me. She could not have missed my hand signals to ride ahead.
I would not ask her to lead all the way up the hill. I was just exhausted and needed a little help to regain my strength. But she made no move. A sliver of sunshine pierced the otherwise consuming gray rain clouds above and shone a reflecting bar just across her sunglasses. And in that reflection, I could see my own image: saturated, teeth bared, and face twisted in pain like a drowning monkey, equal parts confused and hurt. And I could take it no more. I howled, “It’s for the kids, damn it!”
Many would say that it’s a man’s job to protect his woman, to suffer the burden for her whenever possible. And I think I believed that, on paper. But at that moment, my body and mind collapsed. I didn’t fall down, but I did fall back. I slackened my pace as we approached the giant hill. Then I stopped pedaling altogether until it was inevitable that my wife would pass me. And all those who would espouse their platitudes of masculine obligation, with whom I agreed, on paper, didn’t see what I saw cycling behind my wife on the road that day. If they had, they would know there were far worse demons at play. Demons that screamed, scratched, and clawed until they found release. And find release, they did. As my wife rode, leaning as far forward on the handlebars as possible (from fatigue I had presumed), I saw pockets of rain shift in the air behind her bicycle seat, bubbles that would have been invisible if not for the streaking raindrops they displaced, sent bouncing in other directions. The rain behind her bicycle shorts distorted in small puffs, like the tremulous vapors shimmering in the air at the gas pump on a summer afternoon.  And I knew her reluctance to lead wasn’t about her own fatigue, or my duty as a husband, as a man; it was about the goddamn three-bean salad!
After the charity bike ride, my wife started to float away from me—a zeppelin sailing on an odoriferous zephyr. There was not a bathroom far enough away in our one-level home that she could exorcise her demons in peace. Within three months, she had left. The reasons she gave—I didn’t appreciate her, I smothered her, I had anger issues, I put my needs above hers—all a virtuous veneer to cover what was bubbling inside. I realize that now. I think deep down I have known it for a long time. Which is why I haven’t saddled myself in another bloated relationship since.
You had always said you wanted an open casket. And why not? You look beautiful lying there. Serene.
I look around at the mourners, at the family you built after leaving me. On the face of your son, your oldest child, I detect relief. Something of the piteous angle of his eyebrows and his slumped shoulders tell a story of acceptance that you are in a better place now, a place without nosy noses or intrusive ears. While in the countenance of your young daughter, I see hardened, embittered lines: the trenches carved in her face already from the early years of gaseous warfare. I see your new husband (not “new” in any objective sense, of course, with thirty-some years of creating a life together), and I can tell by the deep purple bags under his eyes that he has carried the weight for you as long as he could. He was a better husband than I was, because he figured out how to lighten your load, even as it slowly poisoned him from the inside, causing the hair to fall off his head, inflating his belly like a Thanksgiving Day parade balloon full of flatus, and making him hobble when he walks. Ostensibly, it is knee pain, but I recognize the labored, cautious steps of a man holding in a lifetime of your gas like a drug mule. I’m thankful that you found him. You deserved better than me.
Even as an aged, cold body you are lovely. The funeral home has precisely highlighted those sharp cheekbones of which you were always so proud. Your hair is done with impeccable blond curls that we never could have afforded when we were married. And your lips . . . like pillows of a subtle red shade that somehow complements your pallid skin tone perfectly. It is uncanny how soft and supple they look. I lean in closer, looking for the inevitable signs of desiccation in a body without a soul. And I hear a tearing noise that freezes me. Had I set my hand in the wrong place? Had I ripped the elegant satin fabric lining the casket? Had I ruined the last sweet memory of my former wife for her grieving family?
Then I am hit by a tidal wave of stench from the far shore of the river Styx, and all the memories of our arguments come flooding back with it. You had taken your gas to the grave, counting on the force of rigor mortis to trap it in, at least long enough that you could finally be alone, buried in a Dutch oven of solitude forever more. But you didn’t make it there before the last of your soul flew away.
I stand there mired in the stench of our memories, unmoving for fear of attracting attention from the crowd. I am aware that my face must show some sign of the acrid assault, so I don’t dare avert my gaze from your body. My eyes water like I just opened a three-week old Tupperware full of cubed watermelon and have been accosted not only by the formidable funk, but also by the poignant sadness that something so sweet could produce such horror.
I sob for lack of oxygen. And I tumble in an unyielding death roll of gasping, only to heave in more air from the same poisonous cloud that vexes me. Your husband spies me through the purple graves of his eye sockets; I am crying uncontrollably over his wife’s casket. He approaches softly over my right shoulder. He places a gentle hand on my back. And we let it all out.

Jimmy Lis, when he’s not busy selling sugar, xanthan gum, or fd&c yellow no. 5 by day, or challenging his kids to Pokemon battles by night, spends his time reading, writing, or sneaking in the occasional crossword puzzle. His work can be found in Bright Flash Literary Review, Spank the CarpApocalypse Confidential, and The Avalon Literary Review.