A Healthy Man

Matt Wile

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I am a sick man. A spiteful man. I pick at my scalp. My shoulders are carpeted thickly. I am less a person than an assemblage of tics in a person-like shape.

Yet my boyfriend refuses to see. In spite of my filth, in spite of my terrible thoughts, he insists I am good. He knows in his heart, he says; it is what drew him to me.

For a time, I believed; in his belief, if not in my own. It was intoxicating, seeing myself through his eyes.

But then we moved in together. Who knew what would shatter my façade was love in proximity? The illusion became oppressive. I grew paranoid, burdened day and night with the task of living up to his version of me.

I have tried to explain; I tell him about the darkness that lies at my core like a seed, now growing into some monstrous thing rising out of my soul, fertilized as it is by the rotting detritus of my more civilized aspects, which have fallen like leaves under the unrelenting pressure of his love. I tell him that this process will only accelerate until he sees me for me; but he brushes my words off like so much dust and returns to his incessant refrain: I am good. It is this goodness, he says, that makes me feel as though I am not; my guilt is proof of my virtue. And he sticks to this line no matter how much I tell him he is wrong.

Which means I must show him.

Orbit-sml ><

I decide on a target: his phone.

It is glued to his hand and I hate it. It is a glaring portal to a bright world that I have nothing to do with. It fills my vision no matter where I turn in our tiny apartment, and even when it is not in my eye, I can hear the tap-tap-tap of his thumbs against the laminate screen, the sound of death encroaching.

He has asked me not to look. It is an invasion of privacy that is edging him out of his own life and into an ever-smaller world that is separate from me, he says. He is right. We are not what we once were.

It is perfect.


I wait until he is asleep, his snores filling the room like a rich sauce, then I move.

I slide from the bed and creep toward his side. I examine his face and his slack, open mouth, ensuring that his sleep is genuine; then I lift his phone from where it has tipped to his chest.

In the harsh light of the bathroom, I huddle on the toilet. The phone is locked, but I know the code. He is too trusting. I open his texts – the babble of strangers, relentless evidence of the unacceptably vast swathes of his universe that have nothing to do with me.

What will I say if he finds me? What excuse can I possibly conjure? There is none. That is the point.

I begin to type.

When I am done, I am shaking, vibrating like a string hard plucked. And yet the dark, dank part of me is still for the first time in months, because at last it is being exposed to the light.

Orbit-sml ><

I am in the kitchen, jittery with coffee when he emerges from sleep, phone back in his hand. He greets me with a smile and a kiss, and then sits on the couch.

I watch as he opens his texts and begins to type—

—and then stops, and looks closer.

He reads the vulgarities that I have sent on his behalf, the secrets I have revealed; his brow stitches into a furrow that deepens and spreads as he opens up thread after thread only to realize that each has been filled with my bile.

Slowly, as though the air is fighting him back, he turns to face me. “Did you do this?” he says.

There passes the longest, most delicious second of my life.

Then I nod.

He looks back down at his phone. Already it is beginning to flash; with the frantic, hurt responses of the people he loves, I imagine.

He ignores it. My boyfriend stands and walks to me slowly. He reaches out and I brace for a blow, tense, buzzing, ecstatic, alive—

—but then he places his hands on my cheeks gently, and it all comes crumbling down.

“I forgive you,” he says.

Orbit-sml ><

I go around for days in a haze of grief. The world seems emptied of meaning, soulless; even my emotions feel estranged from myself, as though they are experienced by some foreign person and then transferred to me.

I ask my boyfriend what he told his friends and family in order to explain away the horrible things that I said. “The truth,” he says as though it is obvious, his expression like a clear pool of water. “But it’s okay. They love me, and you.”

This only increases my confusion. I barely know “the truth” of why I did what I did; how is it possible that he does? How can these strangers, whose gazes, every time that we meet, land on me like so many unsparing spotlights; who find wanting this base human, who has ensnared their beloved son, their brother, their best and most valuable friend; who lament that their favorite has fallen prey to a creature so mean and petty that it can barely find it in itself to hold a conversation with them, to connect with them on their level; how can they have not only understood the impossible truth but forgiven me for it? What do they know that I don’t?

I do not enquire. I could ask all day and all night – I could read a treatise on the topic, my boyfriend would write one if I asked him, he would do anything for me – and I still would not understand. Because the truth as described by him would not be the truth at all, but the truth made tame and understood, full of logical justifications and allowances for my actions. And implicit in that truth would be the possibility of redemption: the notion that if I only finally acknowledged my goodness then at last I would shed these gross parts of myself and emerge the fully-realized human I was always destined to be.

But that is not the truth.

The truth is that I am a raging vortex of need that will never be filled.

Orbit-sml ><

S o I do the only thing I can. I go further.

It takes some planning, but I am up for it. There are many numbers I have to create, and then save in my phone under the appropriate monikers; I make a spreadsheet to keep track.

When he is sleeping, I take his phone again. In some ways I think he wants me to: why else would he leave the passcode unchanged? Then, for each of the people he texts, I change their number to one I have created, numbers which feed into my phone, and I block their actual numbers. The process is quite time-consuming, and by the time I have finished it is nearly morning.

I replace his phone in the early light of the dawn and lie next to him in bed, exhausted but satiated, and wait as my boyfriend gets up and begins his day. Almost as soon as he exits the bedroom, phone clutched in hand, my phone lights up in mine: it is him, thinking he is texting his best friend, but actually texting me.

Good morning, he has said.

Good morning, I reply.

Orbit-sml ><

I t is not hard to get him to talk about me. It takes only the slightest encouragement – how’s it going with him – and his frustrations, his irritations come spilling out. It is initially satisfying to receive—there is nothing quite like rubbing salt in a wound.

But what is worse is the love.

The deeper I dig for a motherlode of resentment, the more I find kindness. A depth of caring and forgiveness that is overwhelming and alien, and deeply frightening because it is directed at me. No matter how cruel I am – and I take care to be cruel – he simply takes it in good faith and moves on, his core of kindness seemingly unshakable.

When he reaches out to his lover I change tactics again. I know their connection is strong, that they explore things that I won’t with him. No matter that I am the one who has asked for this arrangement, this freeness, my boyfriend has made better on it, and I resent him for it.

I sext with him, pretending to be this other person. My impersonation is flawless, I am sure; I am much better at being other people than I am at being myself. As The Lover, I find an easy rapport with my boyfriend that in person I do not; but this hurts only distantly, as though my earlier pain has iced over and now new pain can only skitter on the surface. And slowly, deliberately, I turn the conversation toward a very particular kink: humiliating me. How much better the sex is without me. How terrible I am and how much he surely dreams about leaving.

But he won’t take the bait. He won’t confess to the dark thoughts that I know he must have, and after I keep needling he ever so politely asks me to stop. It is too close to home, he says – ever so apologetically – and nothing is more important to him than maintaining the sanctity of the relationship with the person he loves.

This makes me feel physically ill.

It’s me, I text him at last, unable to lie any longer.

He writes back, What do you mean?

It’s your boyfriend, I say, and I wait.

The response takes a long time to come back.

It’s okay, he says. I forgive you.

Orbit-sml ><

W hat is this obsession with good? The world sacrifices so much sensation on the altar of goodness. We are taught from infancy to worship kindness and health, all while we watch history being written by those who couldn’t care less.

Good is a dead god. When my boyfriend insists on my goodness I am half the person I could be. A sliver of someone else’s idea, cut off from the whole and thrust in inhospitable earth. He plants good in my soil so nothing else grows.

I loathe good.

Orbit-sml ><

W hen he opens his eyes in the night, I am standing above him.

“What is it?” he says. His gaze flicks toward his phone, but it is still on his nightstand. We are past that, even if he does not know it yet.

His eyes turn back to me. “What are you doing?” His voice is soft this time, almost inviting, as though he can tell what is coming.

I turn my hand so that the knife catches the light.

His eyes are wide and unblinking, but he does not resist. He is not even tense; the soft flesh of his bicep dimples easily as I press. I pause with the edge about to pierce the skin and search in his eyes for some evidence that he sees me at last. That he knows what a monster I am. But already he is nodding, gently, beneficently, his mouth sounding out words, barely more than a whisper. “It’s okay,” he is saying, again and again. “It’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay.”

But I do not want it to be okay.

So I give him the greatest gift that a dirty thing like me can: a cut.

The cleanest thing in the world.

Orbit-sml ><

T his one, he does not tell to his friends and his family. This one he keeps to himself, which provides me with some small measure of triumph.

But he forgives me, of course.

He does not even get angry. He knows that the bad things I do are not because I am bad, but because I am in pain from not being able to see my own goodness. If there is someone at fault here, he says, it is him, for not being able to show me.

It is so kind it is cruel. It is clear to me now that almost nothing will permit him to see me; for him to understand what I am, I must do something so terrible that it removes the possibility of his belief.

Still, from that point on there is an understanding between us of where this is heading. It is though the air has been wiped clean and charged afresh, and now everything crackles. Electricity building in our apartment, in our texts; every time he pulls out his phone around me, it adds. Both of us can feel it, I am sure.

Until finally, one night it is time.

We are back in bed again with the knife. Both of us are naked, him clean and perfect, me filthy and stinking, my back against the headboard, his back against my chest. In my right hand is the knife. My left is on his arm, resting on the bandage that covers the cut. I squeeze and am rewarded with the faintest of whimpers.

Are you ready, I ask him.

“I’m ready,” he says.

I move my left hand to his chin and tilt his head back until his eyes look in mine. They are lucid, and beautiful, and full of absolutely nothing.

Then I bring my right hand to his throat.

Orbit-sml ><

T hey forgive me, of course. He has prepared them extraordinarily. Even in death, he is somehow winning this game.

I am absolved: the inquest is significant, and though I do my best to confess, it is surprisingly difficult to claim an unbelievable crime. My confessions are taken as metaphorical rather than literal. “He blames himself,” his family tells the police. “It’s going to be hard enough on him as it is,” says his lover. “We’ve never known him to have a malicious bone in his body,” his friends say, one and all.

It is lies. All of it is lies, wrought through my boyfriend’s love for me. He went to his grave not only believing in my goodness, but ensuring that everyone else did too, and this impossible last show of conviction finally does for me what nothing else could:

I begin to believe him as well.

I expected the era of their faith in me to end in the months after my boyfriend is gone, but somehow it persists. They continue to reach out, and express affection, and admiration for how well I am handling it, and ask to spend time together. And though I am rude and try to push them away, they merely take it as a sign of my grief – as yet another secret indicator of my goodness – and come back to me after respectful intervals spent waiting.

By the third or fourth time, they have worn me down enough that I accept, and begin to become a part of my boyfriend’s life.

I step into his place. I take on his friends, his family; his lovers even. I had few people of my own previously, and my life was almost entirely composed of the fragments of his. But somehow, in his passing, they all seem to think his magnetism transferred to me.

Slowly, I begin to wonder: was my sickness all in my own head? Have I been decent this whole time?

This is the worst thought I have ever had, because it means that I did not have to do what I did. So I force myself to think about the unforgivable things that I did – the undeniable signs of my illness – and what I continue to do, stealing goodwill that has never been mine. And it reassures me that I have been sick all along.

This feeling frees me, releases me at last from the contempt I have been clinging to; and suddenly, newly able to return the loving gazes of the people my boyfriend cherished before, I notice something: a simmering heat beneath their kindly expressions; a whiff of putrescence, so faint as to be undetectable to anyone who has not spent a lifetime growing keen to its scent.

I see these hints and study them, and I realize: they are like me.

Their kindness, which this whole time I believed was as deep as my boyfriend’s, is as thin as my own. It is a relief to no longer have to confront their own vileness in his face every day. They have one of their own among them at last, and their sick pleasure at this spurs guilt, which spurs even more pleasure, and the whole cycle begins once again.

And I am a part of it.

They see me for the monster I am. And they love me for it.

At long last, I feel my self-loathing begin to quiet, which was always so acute with him by my side. I grow closer to these people, and for the first time have a sense of what it might be like to feel truly at home in this world. I open up even more, and rather than recoil at what I reveal, my new community brings me even deeper into their fold. Slowly, I surrender to a happiness that has overtaken me as unexpectedly as a sun in the night, with only one remaining thread of disquiet: the fact that my boyfriend cannot share it with me.

But then I relinquish that too, because I know in my heart that he never would: because he was not sick.

Not like you and like me.


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Matt Wile

Author image of Matt Wile Matt Wile is a writer and filmmaker. His debut feature as writer/director, The Skin of the Teeth, was described by critics as both ‘Get Out meets Grindr’ and ‘David Lynch directs an episode of Law & Order: SVU.’ His fiction can be found most recently in Andromeda Spaceways, Dark Horses, and Del Sol SFF Review. More of his work is available at mattwile.com.

© Matt Wile 2023 All Rights Reserved

The title picture was created using Creative Commons images - many thanks to the following creators: cottonbro studio and Sandy Millar.

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