My husband started telling Dad jokes before he was old enough to pour his own juice, so I may have missed a red flag or two. Or four. But in my defense, this kinda juvenile behavior seemed very ‘on brand’ at the time.
Let me give you some quick context. The entire first-year Stephen and I lived together, anytime we exchanged ‘I love yous’, he would quickly pinch my cheek and shout: “Bzzzt, make your own damn waffles.”
Neither of us even liked waffles—he just got a kick out of spoiling the moment. And although I’d groan and roll my eyes, his dumb schtick cracked me up. Lord help me, it absolutely cracked me up.
So when I shuffled into the kitchen one morning, fresh from sleep, his odd remark barely registered.
“Can you see me smile?”
I glanced at Stephen from across the center island. “What?”
He leaned back and blinked. “What?”
“Thought you said something.”
He shrugged and shook his head. My imagination then.
As I poured a cup of coffee, he said it again. Quieter this time. “Can you see me smile?”
Here we go. Stephen’s jokes were usually unfunny for that first week or two until his relentless commitment tickled my funny bone.
“That’s nice honey,” I said after a yawn. Then I circled the island and went in for a kiss but instead noticed a sore beneath his left nostril. “Oof, get some cream on that.”
On my way out of the room, Stephen began ratcheting coughs.
Things seemed normal for the next few days. He periodically dropped the smile line mid-conversation and then continued on like normal. Once or twice he even said it over the phone.
“Hey hon, I’m at the store. Do were need any—can you see me smile—kitchen roll?”
Stephen picked up some cream for his increasingly gruesome scab, although that didn’t seem to help. If anything, it made things worse.
One evening, as we sat down to dinner, he slurped up some pasta, stared dead into my eyes, and twisted his mouth in this horrible pumpkin grin. “Can you see me smile?”
I set down my fork. “Okay, enough. It’s been a week and I’m still not laughing.”
“What are you talking about?”
“That stupid ‘can you see me smile can you see me smile’ thing.”
He cocked his head to the side. “Huh?”
“Don’t. Even. Start. Just drop it already.”
The two of us went back and forth, him pushing me to explain myself, me growing steadily more agitated. “Can’t you just admit this gag didn’t land and move on?”
“Well the only gags that do land are ones about airplanes, but I still don’t understand what you’re talking about.” The tension immediately dissolved as I half-groaned half-chuckled at his zinger.
Later, as I soaked in the tube with two cucumber slices over my eyes, the door at the far side of the room creaked open. “Stephen?” I called.
Another creak. “Hello?”
I slid up, catching the slices. There was no one else in the steamy room. A draught had most likely blown the door open. I settled back into a comfortable position.
Afterward, while toweling myself off, I noticed a smiley face in the fogged-up mirror above the sink, accompanied by the words: CAN YOU SEE ME SMILE?
Stephen had already turned in for the night, so my lecture about boundaries got placed on hold until morning.
Sometime after midnight, an awful dream about falling into this endless black void startled me awake. For a moment the sensation carried into the real world, no doubt because the mattress had compressed beneath our combined weight. I opened my eyes in an attempt to escape the sensation of that awful dream and saw Stephen, who held himself directly above me, supported by his elbows and knees. His nose was pressed right up against mine.
I bit down on a scream. Stephen’s sore had spread—now he looked like a toddler after devouring a plate of jam sandwiches. Was he picking at those oozing scabs?
“What the fuck?” I shouted.
Immediately he rolled onto his half of the bed and faced the wall, pretending to snore.
I thumped the back of his skull, hard. “You almost gave me a heart attack.”
He acted all innocent like he’d just woke up, the corners of his mouth twitching as though pulled by invisible strings. “Ow. What was that for?” He propped up against the backboard, one hand rubbing the bump across the back of his head, the other fingering a leaky sore under his chin.
Turning away, I said, “This is getting seriously old. You’re not funny.”
He began to protest but then entered a harsh coughing fit. It rose from deep inside his chest as he raced down the hall.
“And go see a dermatologist,” I shouted after him.
When the alarm screeched, the far side of the bed was still empty. I crossed the upstairs landing and went into the bathroom, where Stephen stood before the sink, eyes fixed on his own reflection. He stretched and twisted his lips—which had gone pale at the corners—using his forefingers.
From the doorway, I said, “Look, sorry about last night. But you scared the crap out of me. Can we act like the whole thing never happened?”
He pulled the sides of his mouth apart. The gums looked grey and unhealthy.
I rolled my eyes. “Fine.”
On my way across the hall, he shouted, “Can you see me smile?”
I called my mom from work, who listened to me vent for twenty minutes. “He just won’t give it a rest with this smiling thing.”
“Be upfront. Explain how much it’s bothering you.”
That sounded reasonable. Stephen liked juvenile jokes, granted, but he wasn’t a man-child or anything; most likely the two of us could get this straightened out and then go for a romantic meal someplace fancy.
Back home, Stephen was in the downstairs lounge, furiously scribbling into a notebook.
“Can we talk?” I asked.
He stayed hunched forward, his attention fixated on his writing.
“Sorry if I was a little short-tempered last night. I didn’t mean to hit you so hard. But this joke really got under my skin. You think we could pretend the whole thing never happened?”
“Can you please answer me? Or at least acknowledge you’re listening?”
I moved forward and snatched the notepad away. Stephen stood, suddenly enough to startle me, and grabbed it back. For a split second, I glimpsed the words ‘CAN YOU SEE ME SMILE?’ written over and over again.
He grinned, exposing teeth of startling whiteness. Had he bleached them? This wasn’t a joke anymore. It was a full-blown mental illness.
“Stephen, talk to me. What’s wrong?”
He cleared his watery throat. “Can you see me smile?”
He tossed the notebook aside and took a single step forward, arms outstretched. Thin trickles of blood ran along his chin from where he’d compulsively nibbled his bottom lip. “Can you see me smile?”
I retreated into the hall. “Stephen…”
“CAN YOU SEE ME SMILE?” He coughed harshly before saying it again in a kind of hoarse growl. Thick wads of saliva flew from those pale lips.
I spun on my heels and made for the door, Stephen walking after me. “CAN YOU SEE ME SMILE?”
He followed me out of the house and across the front walkway. The second I pulled the door of my Ford Escort shut he drum rolled the window. “CAN YOU SEE ME SMILE? CAN YOU SEE ME SMILE?” As I slipped the vehicle into gear, he breathed over the glass to fog it up and wrote a backward C-A-N. It’s a miracle I didn’t plow over him barrelling out of that driveway in reverse.
My eyes had gone all red and puffy by the time I reached Mom’s place. The police showed zero interest in Stephen’s condition. Yeah sure, your husband keeps telling you to smile. We’ll get right on that. Neither did the paramedics. Do you want us to send an ambulance over a nasty rash?
Stephen didn’t respond to any of my messages, nor answer my calls. That night, I lay awake praying he was okay—that he’d made use of the mental health resources I’d sent over.
Mom told me to steer clear until we could arrange for somebody to accompany me home, but laying in that cold, empty bed, I had terrible nightmares about Stephen hurting himself. He needed help. And it couldn’t wait.
When I pulled into the driveway, the house was entirely dark. A nasty aroma hit me the second I pushed open the front door; a strangely familiar, coppery scent.
There were dull thuds from somewhere upstairs. I slowly climbed the steps.
In the landing, I flicked on the light and stifled a yelp. Scribbled up and down the walls were the words ‘CAN YOU SEE ME SMILE?’. Stephen had covered every inch of space from floor to ceiling. My heart kicked into a higher gear.
The door to the bathroom sat slightly ajar. I tiptoed forward, the color of the writing switching from black to red in what I assumed was lipstick or paint.
Gently I rapped the door. “Stephen,” I called, so low I almost couldn’t hear myself. Then, after a little while, I went in.
My husband was crouched in the corner naked, his back to me. He dragged a lobster-red hand up and down the wall, smearing the word S-E-E over the cream-colored tiles, stopping only to replenish the ‘ink’ by vomiting thick red phlegm onto his fingers. Oh fuck, it was blood—he’d written those words with his own blood.
“CAN YOU SEE ME SMILE?” he snarled, along with a full-body spasm. There was something wrong with his voice; he sounded like a patient in a dentist’s chair with a prop in their mouth.
The door made a ‘creee’ sound as I flinched back without meaning to. Stephen’s head perked up.
I spun into the hall and raced toward the stairs. Halfway there, Stephen threw himself hard against the back of my legs, sending us both careening down the steps.
I landed flat on my back. Directly above my head, two blurry lightbulbs circled one another. I watched them go round and round until two Stephens, their mouths caked with dry, crusty blood, leaned into my window of vision.
He pinned me down. And between gruesome wheezes that slid up from his throat, he repeated those five words again and again.
As my vision stabilized, I realized it wasn’t just blood on his face—tendons and jaw muscles were exposed, pulling and vibrating like over-tuned guitar strings. Fragments of bone even shined through in places. The lips and the surrounding area had been chewed or cut or scratched away. His cheeks hung loose in torn flaps.
He brought us nose to nose, his exposed jaw inches from my mouth. “CAN YOU SEE ME SMILE?” That raw sewage breath absolutely reeked.
A big purple tongue slid out of his mouth, finding its way inside my right nostril. As I lashed out against him, raw meat peeled away beneath my fingernails.
He eventually made a sound like a cat hacking up a furball, exposed teeth chattering and closing and crunching. I seized the opportunity by worming my way out from under him and made a break for the kitchen, where I armed myself with a steak knife.
He followed me into the room, canines bared.
“I’M FUCKING WARNING YOU,” I screamed.
He grinned, although I could tell only by the eyes—those mad eyes that almost seemed to laugh. As he shuffled forward his pincer jaw clamped shut again and again.
Finally, he lunged. And I rammed that knife straight into his throat. Stephen’s body went completely limp before slumping onto the floor.
The paramedics actually wretched when they arrived. “Craziest fucking thing I ever saw,” said the taller of the pair.
A police officer couldn’t believe the story. Still a stammering mess, I recounted how Stephen had mutilated himself before attacking me over and over. He took me to the station for an official statement, after which Mom took me to her place, where, for some odd reason, my mouth wouldn’t stay closed.
I sobbed into her shoulder, licking my lips again and again. My tongue had the texture of a carpet, plus something kept turning over in my gut. Acid reflux maybe.
Eventually, an urge to open my mouth and let out a giant, irresistible yawn overpowered me. Then Mom reeled away, her face laced with concern. “What do you mean, honey?”
I threw her a confused look and scratched my itchy mouth. “What do you mean ‘what do I mean?”
She reached over and wiped a tear off my cheek. “Why wouldn’t I be able to see you smile?”