When Fighting Stops Being Fun
“Chicken,” original fiction by Rachel Lyon, recommended by Electric Lit
AN INTRODUCTION BY HALIMAH MARCUS
You can go to therapy, or you can take fifteen minutes and read “Chicken” by Rachel Lyon. In a quarter of an hour, you’ll get a depiction of anger and of a marriage, of a woman having her first inkling that maybe she might start thinking about trying to change. At the behest of her husband, our hot-headed narrator packs up to “drop in, turn off, and tune out,” for a few days. He wants them to stop fighting. She thought they were having fun. “Chicken” is a portrait so complete you’ll feel like you’ve experienced it in real time; you’ll feel like you’ve gone on this “hippy-dippy bullshit” retreat yourself.
At the landlocked retreat in late March, the narrator’s relationship to anger unpeels as the hours pass. Before she arrived, it was dramatic and exciting. Fun, as she called it. Now that yelling has been removed from her marriage, her anger has become, or is revealed to be, compulsive and misdirected. By the end, the soft core of it is all that remains, insidious and poisonous and self-directed.
When describing the change in her marriage, the narrator reflects, “He says it happened slowly. I say it happened fast.” By the story’s conclusion, you too might recognize this subjective warping of time. Has there been a significant change, or no change at all? Did it happen slowly, or did it happen fast? The duplicity of Lyon’s written word allows it to be both; the not knowing how long it took to write, against the certainty of a swift, satisfying read.
– Halimah Marcus
Editor in Chief, Recommended Reading
When Fighting Stops Being Fun
by Rachel Lyon
My husband of twenty years wanted me to go on this retreat. Some place up in the mountains where New Age types went to drop in, turn off, tune out. As we’ve gotten older he’s gotten way into all kinds of self-helpy crap. He says it happened slowly. I say it happened fast.
First he became a vegetarian. This guy who used to alphabetize his barbeque sauce collection. We were in the Kroger and I was picking through the frozen chickens. He sort of looked up at the ceiling and said, Eating animals, you ingest a lot of negative vibes. I said, Negative what? He said, When they get slaughtered they release fear hormones. Then later when you eat them, fear is what you eat. I said, Stop fucking around and help me find a bird. He said, You’re on your own.
Then he started meditating. I’d come out to the porch and there he’d be. Fat legs crossed Indian style, eyes closed, a blissful bitty smile on his face. I’d give him a kick, but he’d just breathe.
I wouldn’t give a shit about any of it, except that he stopped fighting with me. Used to be we’d stomp and scream until the neighbors called. I’d call him a spineless, sexless fart. He’d say I was a curse on him, tell me to go back to whatever Hell portal I crawled out of. I’d call him all the fucked-up names that I could think of — a baboon, a slug, a scab — until his face got red and tears formed in his eyes and he collapsed, weak-kneed, in unhinged laughter. Once he grabbed my hair and jerked my head back, pressed me against the wall and said, You fat bitch, if you ever, ever —
I don’t think I’ve ever had as good a time as that.
But he announced he’d had enough. We were driving home in the old teal Chevy from I don’t remember where. It was dark but I could see his hand on the wheel was trembling.
Can’t do it anymore, he said. Can’t take it.
We’d never talked about the fighting. We’d just fought, that’s all, since always.
I said, I thought we were having fun.
He said, Not me. I wasn’t.
Why would he have stuck with me so long if he didn’t like it? How dare he? At the edges of the road the black trees whizzed by.
This whole time? I said.
He said, This whole time.
The retreat was at a ranch up the mountains, a couple hours east. He drove me on a Saturday morning. I sat shotgun, chasing stations. Twenty minutes of talk radio, fifteen minutes of country, six or seven minutes of 80s, 90s, and Today. Each fizzled out, leaving a hush of static. With forty miles to go I turned it off. We drove in silence, rolled up the dirt road in silence. There weren’t any horses or any animals at all that I could see. Just flat brown fields and a big farmhouse, a couple dour ladies in ponchos smoking on the porch. He carried my duffle for me up the steps and went with me to registration, where a girl with a nametag that said Clover got me all checked in. She had pale green hair and a lip ring and a lisp. Christ, I said to my husband when all the paperwork was done. Is she a woman or a plant?
He didn’t laugh. Instead he kissed me on the cheek. In our twenty years of marriage he’s done that maybe never. He said, Be good, all right? and got back in the truck and drove away.
The program was some hippy-dippy bullshit, let me tell you. Meditation in the mornings, group therapy, a vegan lunch. Then art therapy, walking meditation, yoga, nonalcoholic cocktails, vegan dinner. They’d look at you sideways if you so much as used the F word. I’d have given my right eye for a cigarette. My left eye for a steak. Tell you the truth I wasn’t sure what I was there for. Tell you the truth I missed him.
In therapy we were supposed to talk about what irked us. Then we’d do some kind of game together that was supposed to work it out. There was a couple there about my age, a slouchy guy and his bleached-hair, pinched-face wife. A couple — and me I was there all alone, like a sucker. They were in because he’d left her for another woman, a twenty-something someone who worked at his place of business. The affair lasted all of a month but in that time he’d managed to move out, move in with the girl, get thrown out of the girl’s place, and move back in. Why his pinched-face wife took him back I couldn’t tell. Didn’t much seem like she wanted to.
After she told her story the therapist Omario asked her what she would say to the girl her husband fucked, if the girl were there. Omario said, Pretend she’s in the room with us, Michelle. What would you say to her?
Most of the others found it hard to resist his soothing Jamaican accent, but Michelle just pinched up her pinched face harder and shook her head from side to side. Mm-mm, she said.
You aren’t ready to speak to her?
You want somebody to speak to her for you?
She looked at him.
Who do you want to speak to her for you?
She pointed at me.
All right, said Omario. He turned to me. You ready? You get to be Michelle. Stand up now.
I stood up.
Imagine that you are Michelle. Your husband left you for this girl. What do you have to say to her?
Michelle looked up at me the way you’d look up at a movie theater screen before the film comes on. I stood with my arms folded and took a gander at our sorry group: this sad couple, a suicidal truck driver, an anxious dentist, a teenaged kleptomaniac, and an obsessive-compulsive postal clerk.
The postal clerk was maybe twenty-five and skinny as a meth addict, with limp brown hair and thin pale lips and a face as meek and guilty as a reprimanded dog. Her name was Peggy. She’d sit with her hands in her lap and tap her bony fingers together in a secret rhythm, apologizing for it if anybody noticed. Tap-tap-tap, Sorry, sorry. She annoyed me, frankly, I think she annoyed everyone, but that isn’t why I chose her. She happened to be around the age of Michelle’s other woman, that’s all.
I revved up with a good old-fashioned Go fuck yourself.
I glanced at Michelle. Her face had relaxed a smidge. Her slouchy husband beside her had his elbows on his knees, his face hidden in his hands.
Slut, I said to Peggy the postal clerk.
The room was silent except for the ticking of a round brown institutional clock. Peggy looked at my shoes and tap-tapped her fingers together in her lap. I was afraid she might apologize but she stayed quiet, thank God. Michelle leaned forward just slightly in suspense. I rubbed my hands together.
You’re a sad little slut, I said, and ugly, too. Your face looks like it was thrown against a wall and scraped off with a spatula.
All right, said Omario.
A face like yours was growing in the weeds behind my house, I said. Wait a minute, did you find that face out back in the compost pile? I think I recognize it. I think my dog squeezed it out his ass this morning.
Insults are not so productive, warned Omario. Peggy kept her head down. Her pale neck was turning red.
You think you can fuck my husband? I went on. You think you know how the world works? I’ll show you how the world works. You fuck my husband; I fuck you. I’ll fuck you with a cactus. I’ll fuck you with a jackhammer. I’ll fuck you with a drilling rig, until black oil spouts right out your —
She lifted her face. It was wide-eyed and crumpling. She tapped her fingers together like her life depended on it. Omario stood up. Enough! he said, and put both his hands on both my shoulders. As he guided me out of the room I tried to catch Michelle’s eye, but I couldn’t, not before he pushed me out and shut the door behind us.
We stood together in the hallway. There was a framed watercolor of a beachy sunset on the wall. I wondered if it looked anything like where he grew up. I wondered what it was like for him to live out here in our cold white landlocked state. On the other side of the door we could hear Peggy crying, breathy little hyperventilating sniffles, and the murmuring of other people soothing her.
That was inappropriate, Omario said sternly.
I flashed him a little smile. But it was fun, though, right?
We’re going to have to work on your anger issues.
I’m not angry, I said. Do I seem angry? I was speaking for Michelle.
The next day Michelle found me behind the barn. We were supposed to be doing a walking meditation but I’d found half a pack of cigarettes in the pocket of an old sweatshirt and smoking gave me about twelve times more serenity. From my spot next to the woodpile we could see the others pacing slowly around and around the brick path that wound through the dead brown field.
Close up Michelle seemed a little less pinched. Her breath was a cloud of condensation in the late March chill. Got a cigarette? she said.
We smoked together quietly. They all had such different posture, all the walking meditators. The anxious dentist shuffled quickly. The suicidal truck driver trudged, chin on his chest.
Peggy left, Michelle said.
The postal clerk? I said. I knew who she meant.
She left because you yelled at her. Michelle inhaled, exhaled. A little reproachfully she added, She’s only twenty-two.
She shouldn’t have been here in the first place, I said. She should’ve been out in the world, thickening up her skin. Someone like her, it isn’t going to do her any good hiding herself away at a place like this. These kindhearted dipshits are just going to tell her she’s okay the way she is when she isn’t. None of us are.
I dropped my cigarette into the cracked cold dirt.
Michelle smoked slowly. I’m getting a lot out of this experience, she said, looking out at the brown field and white sky. I’m finding it pretty transformative. She sounded a little like someone had asked her to appear in some retreat center promotional materials. I don’t know that Roy is getting as much out of it as I am —
Roy’s a tool, I said.
— but he’s doing it for me, and that’s enough. When we go home, she said, I will have more power over him than I’ve ever had. Little pockets full of power that he’s kept on him for years will be turned inside-out and emptied out like spare change on the bedspread. And then I’ll pick that power up and keep it for myself.
You’re not going to kick him out? I said.
Why would I? She dropped her cigarette too and dug it into the ground with the heel of her shoe. He’s afraid of me now.
My husband’s always been afraid of me, I said.
Ha-ha, she said, I bet.
He never told me until twenty years in.
Not lucky, I said. Jealous.
She snorted. Of me?
Of him. I want to be afraid of him.
Turned out Peggy wasn’t 100% gone. She came back a couple nights later to say what she needed to say to me. Lying in the single bed in my bare, cramped bedroom, I heard a car on the gravel outside my window and opened my eyes to see the wall go bright, illuminated by headlights, and then go dark again. I heard her shrill voice calling up for me, calling my name.
I pulled back the cheap curtain and opened the window to see her down there in the driveway. She was wearing snow boots, though it hadn’t snowed in weeks, and pajamas and a long red flannel. She looked like she’d just come from a slumber party with some lumberjacks. Hey, bitch, she called up to me. She brought her hands together at belly height and tapped her fingers together, one two three.
Hey, shit-face, I called down.
She said, I just came back to tell you you’re pathetic.
I laughed. She tap-tap-tapped.
You’re a bullshit person with a bullshit attitude! She wrenched her hands apart and balled them up into two white fists. You think you’re fucking funny but you’re not! You think you’re some kind of strong-ass woman, but you’re pathetic. You’re disgusting. I can’t believe anybody would marry you. Your husband must be either brain-dead or a masochist.
She looked up at me and waited for me to yell back. Her newfound strength was a miracle. It made me hungry. Go on, I said.
You’re fat, too! She waved her little fists around with rage. You’re fat and your face is bloated as a drowning victim’s. You smell like cigarettes and sandwich meat and dirty hair. Your husband must be blind and deaf and have no sense of smell. Fucking you must be like getting sucked into putrid quicksand.
She wasn’t yelling anymore so much as free-associating. In the bedrooms next door people were waking, windows were opening. My heart had quickened. Go on, go on, I said.
Come down here and make me! she yelled back. What are you, chickenshit?
I turned away from the window to find my shoes.
What do you think you’re going to do to me? You’re nothing, less than nothing! You’re what nothing has when it’s got nothing left.
I gave up looking and ran downstairs barefoot, almost tripping at the bottom, almost falling out the front door. The ground was bitter cold and the rocks pierced the soles of my feet but I made my way to her. She was standing outside her car, and when I got close enough I could see her eyes were liquid as melted ice, and steaming. I was all charged up, electric. I took her in my arms and squeezed her hard. She was taller than me but she put her wet cold face in the spot between my head and shoulder and she squeezed me back. My feet were numb and I was pulsing everywhere. Thank you, I said.
I wanted her to come inside but she’d said what she had to say. We let each other go and her thin lips twisted up in a victorious smile.
You’re nothing, she whispered, and tapped her fingers, one two three. Then she got back in her car and drove away.
I turned back toward the broad clapboard wall of the big house and saw a face at every window. They’d all been watching me: Michelle, her husband, everyone. I pulled at the fabric of my sweatpants and gave them a grotesque curtsey in the cold, mugging like a hammy kid for a Camcorder, yelling up: Anybody else want to join the show?
They didn’t smile, but they didn’t look away.
Pussies! I shouted.
One by one each curtain fell back. My heart beat harder with the disappearance of each face.
Peggy’s the only one of you with any balls!
Then the only face in any window was the reflected moon. I raised both my middle fingers at the clapboard, at no one. My feet were numb and the sweat on my neck was prickling. I went back in.
It was raining the day my husband came to pick me up. I was waiting outside on the covered porch with all my things, the last to go. I got to say goodbye to the teenaged kleptomaniac, whose mother arrived in a black Mercedes. To the anxious dentist, who wouldn’t make eye contact when he shook my hand, and to the suicidal truck driver, who took a deep uneven breath before stepping off the porch, as if he were stepping off a cliff.
Michelle came outside with her slouch husband. Pull it around, she ordered him, and then she stood with me and waited while he did.
It’s been good knowing you, I said.
She said, It’s been something.
He pulled up in the car and came out with an umbrella to escort her back to the passenger’s side. Standing there at the foot of the porch steps getting soaked, holding up a hand to help her down, he looked like the happiest man alive. How this bullshit place could have worked so well for them, I can’t begin to know.
Omario came out too to see everybody off. When Michelle and the slouch had gone he looked at me and sort of tilted his head back and shook it, smiling. Well, he said. He seemed sincere. Good luck. I know you’ll need it. He laughed that low musical laugh of his, and went back inside to chat with Clover.
I stood there watching the rain. Close by you could see every drop, round and hard until it splatted. It dripped off the porch roof and puddled in the dirt, but far off by the trees it was just a veil of gray, and up in the clouds it was nothing at all.
The old teal Chevy rolled up and my husband reached over to open the passenger door. I dragged my bags and body down the wet steps and through the mud. When I’d got in and thrown my shit in the back he sat there a moment, looking at me as if I might be someone new.
Well? he said.
I wanted to say The fuck does that mean? I wanted to say Well what, you fuckin fool? I wanted to say Are you happy now, you granola-crunching pea-brained twit? What did you do while I was gone? Did you join the goddamn hare krishnas? Go to yoga and learn how to suck your own cock? God knows I’m not about to suck it for you, you fat old turd. I wanted him to yell back at me, call me a harpy, a blight, a waste. I wanted him to throw me out on the wet grass and push my face and body in the frigid mud. But he wouldn’t, I knew he wouldn’t. Those days were done. I didn’t want him to turn away from me, so I said nothing at all.
He squeezed my shoulder and restarted the car and we drove in silence over the gravel. Down to the gate and through to the road, past a couple of flooded strip malls and blinking yellow stoplights, and then we were on the highway that would take us home. The sky got dark and he flicked on the headlights and I watched the piercing rain ahead go from invisible to illuminated to invisible again. How could I tell him that what I wanted was for him to tell me I was nothing? How could I ask him to erase me, to let me float away, beyond the windshield wipers, into the dead black sky?