“Can you please stop chewing so loudly.”
I shoot a contemptuous glance at Adrian, begging the fresh coffee he sips to scald his vocal chords useless. I throw him a crooked smirk and take my next bite with exaggerated caution, as if his words had put me on mute. He’s back to reading his newspaper so he doesn’t notice the slow burn in my eyes that are obsessively focused on his face, that ought to focus like laser beams and smudge that smug little face into a righteous blur. But they don’t, and he’s still there sitting opposite me at this shitty kitchen table that I asked him to fix up or buy a new one for six months now, in this kitchen that’s a grisly mess because he fired the maid a few weeks back since it “can no longer be afforded”, even though it’s his fault that he fucked up in the office, placing his bets on everything crashing, never pulling out early enough, always such a gambler, always so cocky, never could keep it in his pants, the fucking fool, thinking I don’t know, who the fuck does he think he is?
”So how did it go last night?” No response. And still that complacent smug smile plastered snugly on his sickly face. I silently gag to see if he notices. Not a twitch. A statue frozen in its own loathsome arrogance.
”Working late, were you?” Still no response. I grit my teeth, letting myself callously imagine I’m the one who’s biting his tongue, and I pick up my fork, staring at his hand as a hollow hostility fills my mind to the brim with unwonted ideas. But I brush them off, settling for an obnoxious bite of the soggy eggs he made that has the mushy texture of his tarnished heart soaked in worthless choices. I make noise with my bites the way he keeps his lies in silence: much too obviously. Immediately I hear a grumble from the opposite side of the table.
At first he stares at me, his lip curled, his eyes menacing. I smile at him with innocent sincerity. With sudden flare, Adrian bangs his fist on the table and requests with a rattled rumble through gritted teeth, “Will you please stop that incessant chewing?”
I put on a childish pout and cross my arms. He sighs with frustration and goes back to reading his newspaper. My pout quickly turns into a scowl as ravaging thoughts continue rippling through my head, ripping apart any respect I may have desperately been latching onto for the despicable man sitting in front of me. How dare he, with his slimy wants and overbearing needs, his grabby fingers and sneaky tiptoe, his searing gaze and excessive touch, his blinded sight and careless will, his love has sunk to lust like his blood has sunk from his heart to his cock. There is no love left, there’s no room for it in a soul crowded with vice. He’s pitted me and spit me out like a rotten cherry, and I won’t let myself decay as I witness his endless devouring of this cherry and that, oh no, I won’t let it go that far. I pick up my fork, stare at it intently, and thoughtlessly stick it into the sausage on my plate. I stuff the whole thing in my mouth and smack my lips as I crush the pitiful thing with my hungry teeth, mouth open, noise flailing out like a pestering alarm; remaining in a thoughtless state, I yell out, “So how was last night’s fuck? Was she better than me?”
He looks up at me, eyes so wide they’re ready to pop out, an eerie sense of silent fury surrounding him like a deadly aura.
“What, you really thought I didn’t know?” I say, still chewing loudly enough to be processed in his ears like some earthquake; I smile that crooked smile and become the bitterness that has inhabited me for much too long. “Just tell me how it felt to treat her like a whore. Did it make you feel like a man? Must be a strange feeling, considering you’re nothing but a pencil dicked little mama’s boy who just begs for any attention he can get.”
“I warned you,” he slowly snarls, standing up, “to stop that repulsive chewing!”
A brief moment’s quiet like the calm before a storm, and then my husband turns into a monster. He flips the table in a sudden turn toward chaos, and starts running toward me, yelling, “Come here, you little bitch!”
After a split second of absolute frozen shock, I run off toward the living room, fork still in hand. He chases after me, and I cry out in fear, slipping away from his hands as he grabs out, a desperate terror clutching my every muscle into overdrive. I rush through the hall, hearing his primitive breathing behind me, unable to comprehend this is the man I married. Tears begin spilling as I make a quick turn toward the stairs—as I stumble up them with clumsy haste, his hand grabs my skirt through the stairs’ railing and I scream for help as I stumble and fall. I turn to face him and scream louder, unable to comprehend the rage in his face, the absolute hatred and disgust that was looking back at me. Grimacing, he kept grabbing through the railing like a convict behind bars, like a rampaging lunatic. Unable to stop myself, I stab one of his hands with the fork, leaving it stuck and bloodied on the stairs; he howls out as I get back up and run up the stairs, refusing to look back. But that fork didn’t stop him for long, because as I ran into the bedroom, he was right behind me again.
“STOP!” I scream out, covering my face. I hear ragged breathing behind me, and turn around to face the man I no longer know. I approach him, shivering, and stroke his face. “Baby, you know me. Can we please breathe for a while, try to calm down? I love you, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to make you so upset. Please, baby. Please?”
He calms down for a bit, and I smile, still shivering in dread. But it didn’t help much: he suddenly slaps my hand off of him and shoves me onto the bed. I begin screaming for help endlessly.
“SHUT THE FUCK UP!” he yells, jumping on top of me.
And then, my dear husband’s hands are on my throat. I feel the warm blood oozing from one of his hands as his grip tightens, and I can no longer breathe. I look at my husband’s face, the man I’ve cherished and despised, the man for whom I gave my all only to have it spit back in my face, the man who knew how to heal me when I was broken; my husband, the man who would have died for me, the man who I would have died for, is about to kill me.
Tears pour down the sides of my face into my hair as I keep my eyes on his. All I feel in the last moments is disappointment, for not trying to make things work with him, for falling into bitterness instead of trying to fix the problems that got in our way. It’s all my fault. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.
I’ve stopped breathing. But I’m not dead. I’m still staring at Adrian’s disgruntled face. How is this possible? A surge of panic fills my entire body as I realize I can’t move, I can’t blink, I can’t breathe. Am I dead? I must be. Then why am I still here? I scream out, but nothing happens. Adrian is panting over me, staring at me with such contempt that I start sobbing again, except no tears are coming out. In a sudden rush he gets himself off of me and I can no longer see him. The blank ceiling stares back at my lifeless corpse as the sound of a violent bellow fills the room—it quickly turns into laughter. I hear him leave the room, and after a few long minutes he returns. I feel him spraying me with some sort of liquid, and a fresh wave of panic electrifies my mind. I don’t have much time to think of what it most definitely is, because he’s already lighting the match.
I feel everything. Every single nerve in my body is on fire, and I cannot escape the pain. Every second becomes a demented prayer for death, but it doesn’t change anything. After years or was it a minute, it’s impossible to say, I hear Adrian begin to sob.
“Oh my God, what have I done. OH GOD! I’m so sorry, baby, oh Jesus! It’s all my fault! I’m so sorry.”
Through all the pain I’m feeling, sight blinded by the flames, I feel Adrian lie down on top of me as he breaks down in screams. He stays there, unmoving, feeling the same pain I do, and I realize he still loves me.
A mass of water suddenly drenches us clean of flames, and I regain the ability to breathe. My husband is laying on top of me, sobbing, and I hug him close to my breast as he repeats in an endless mantra the words “I’m sorry”; and without hesitation, I forgive him.
* * *
“How are you feeling?” I hazily hear a voice ask me.
I open my eyes, seeing double. A kind-faced woman is looking back at me, smiling widely.
“Do you know where you are?”
I wonder why she’s asking me that question, as I know for a fact I’m lying on my bed, my husband in my arms. But then, in a sudden mass of flashes, I remember everything.
“Welcome back, Kay!”
“Where am I?” I ask her, just to reaffirm that I’m not dreaming.
“You’re at a HoloGames facility, you’ve just been brought back from a relationship therapy simulation.”
“Where’s my husband?” I ask, slightly frantic. I start to shake as I realize it was all fake, none of it actually happened. “WHERE IS MY HUSBAND?” I yell out, ripping off the plugs on my temples and sitting up.
“Don’t worry, honey!” the nurse says in her soothing voice, “He just woke up himself, he’s in the other room.”
I’m hyperventilating as I recall everything that led up to me being here. Adrian and I were about to get a divorce after I found out he cheated on me, we were about to give it all up, and then we heard of this new therapy, advertised as something of a panacea for whatever a couple may be going through. After countless screaming matches where no one would ever win, we decided to give it a try, one last attempt at saving something we were certain had split into a million irreparable pieces. We weren’t told much when we signed up; we had to sign forms of consent for whatever was to happen, and then we were separately briefed on how the HoloGames would unfold. Once they told me what we would be doing to each other, I was disgusted, mortified, I wanted out—but by then it was too late. I had signed a form that made me consent to everything and anything the HoloGames would have us do. Both of us would be wired into a simulation, and both of us would have the opportunity to do whatever we wanted to the other: apparently, the shock of committing the worst possible deeds in a state of rage would put things into perspective for us—it had a 99% success rate.
There was absolutely no consent when they hooked me up into the machine. I was screaming, kicking, biting, scratching, sobbing; I didn’t want to know what my husband was capable of doing to me when consequence was a nonexistent factor. I didn’t know if I could trust him, I was utterly terrified.
And it seems I had every reason to be.
I try to stop my hands from shaking; I’m repulsed, but also somehow relieved. How could the fulfillment of actions so hollow and hostile be helpful? And yet, I feel closer to Adrian than I have in a long time: holding him close to my breast in that simulation released realer feelings in my heart than any recent intimacy I’ve shared with him in real life. I’m sickened by what just occurred, but then again, now that it’s over, I’m almost glad it happened.
The door opens and in comes Adrian, another nurse by his side. I jump up and run into his arms. He holds me tight and I immediately begin to cry. The nurses leave the room to give us some privacy. I feel the tears running down his cheeks, and from those tears I know how he feels: wretched and guilty. And for whatever reason, knowing he is suffering for how he treated me has me relishing in a newfound contentment. It’s hollow, in a way, but boy does it feel good.
Adrian takes my face in his palms and looks into my eyes, tears glazing his eyes into honesty.
“Kay, I love you, and I’m so sorry for everything, please know that. I think we’ve both learned a lesson through this, and I’m sure things will be different from now on, at least I know I’ll be putting in my all to make this work. The pain we went through, I’m positive it will ultimately be healing for us. You’re my everything, never forget that. And I promise you I myself won’t ever forget it again either.”
He kisses me softly, sweetly, in the delicate manner that he used to treat me all those years ago, before we knew what resentment meant, before we knew what a building bitterness over the years implies. He draws away and I look him in the eyes again, but something in his facial expression is different. I feel a wave of disappointment roar its way through my heart as I recognize that look: it’s the manipulative face he gives me when he wants things his way—he thinks it’s subtle, but I’ve learned all his tricks and games over the years. A sense of foreboding fills me with suspicion.
“So, honey… how bout we forget this simulation and just go home? I think we’ve gotten what we needed out of it, don’t you think?”
His voice is drenched in a reassurance that I’m forced to deem fake. He doesn’t want to go through his portion of the pain. He’s scared. And after all I went through in the name of love and perseverance, a sacrifice made for the both of us, to fix the shattered foundations of our rickety relationship; after all I went through for him, after I let him strangle me to death and burn me alive, after he dirtied his hands in allowance of acting out whatever twisted fantasies had been locked in his head like some pandora’s box over the years—after all that, he won’t go through with his end of the sacrifice? He doesn’t want my hands dirty, because it promises pain for him. He’s weak. All this time I thought he was stronger than me, this sick power play we’ve had, tugging at each other all these years, I was certain he had the upper hand. But now I have proof that he doesn’t. And I’m going to make him suffer for making me think I was lesser.
“You might have gotten what you needed out of it darling, but I haven’t. And I certainly haven’t gotten what I wanted out of it. So sorry,” I say, giving him a few playful slaps on the cheek.
His expression morphs from that familiar facade of deceit into what looks like genuine fear.
“No, babe, come on. We’re good now, right? I mean, we’re better than we’ve been in a long time, right? This is unnecessary, please babe, let’s just go home.”
“Don’t think so, mister,” I say, giving him a sad smile. “You got yours, now it’s time for me to get mine.”
Adrian stares at me in disbelief, and a dangerous, disillusioning satisfaction overcomes me. Just as he opens his mouth, the nurses re-enter the room.
“Alright, I hope you’ve shared a moment of clarity and healing, but it’s time for the next phase. Kay, it’s your turn to be in control of the simulation. Are you ready?”
I redirect my attention from the nurses to Adrian. A spark of doubt twitches in my chest as I see his practically pleading stare. But then I recall just how much he deserves what’s coming to him, and my perplexed figure turns confident: a smile twinkles its way into existence on my now firm face.
Adrian is taken away kicking and screaming as I was earlier that day, and I study his horror manifested with the same blank expression he had, studying my horror earlier that day.
I’m going to enjoy this hollow little game.