If you’re having an argument with your partner, no matter how heated it’s getting or how angry you think you are, just say this phrase —‘Tutant meenage neetle teetles’ — back and forth in high-pitched voices. Neither one of you will be able to stop from laughing, and the fight will soon be over.
I come across this advice on Reddit, of all places. I screenshot it and send it to you, and you acknowledge the message with a thumbs-up emoji, but I suspect you’ll forget soon enough. The next time we argue I’ll make sure to bring it up.
But when you throw a slipper across the room at my head, it doesn’t feel like the right time. Nor when you turn and accidentally knock over the full coffee pot and order me to clean it up: your voice like stone, my heart frantic like a bird in flight. Nor when you call me stupid bitch and look at me with iron in your eyes, your words flat with hate.
So first I practice saying it to myself. I smile every time I do. I whisper it late at night while you’re playing Rocket League, stabbing at the controller buttons and lurching on the couch like a ship caught in a storm and meanwhile I’m curled in bed, muttering the four magic words to myself in my cocoon of blankets, my breath hot and sour as it curls back into my face. I’ll go brush my teeth soon but I don’t want to walk in front of the screen.
Later that week we’re snuggling on the couch and the phrase flies into my head. I consider bringing it up, but I don’t want even the possibility of a future argument to mar our evening. For a moment I think back to last year, to us dancing at a cousin’s wedding and you holding my hands, your pupils huge as you laughed, and me feeling that if you let go of me I’d fly across the floor and through the ceiling into the star-encrusted night.
I think if we had an evening like that again, I could bring up the phrase, no problem. But those days continue to recede further and further into the past. So I keep the phrase to myself for now. I whisper it under my breath as we’re going to the grocery store. I say it silent on the train, my tongue moving without opening my mouth. All these times that aren’t the right time. I say it over and over and after a while I don’t smile anymore. It’s just words and it doesn’t seem like those words could change anything.
But maybe they will save their power for the very last. They might not be able to do much for an ordinary fight, but maybe—one day—they will stop you from seizing my open laptop and snapping it over your leg like a spine. Maybe they will stop your fist from smashing through the drywall just above my head. Or maybe one day they will stop your hands from gripping my neck and squeezing inwards, inwards and inwards and inwards, like forbidden lovers trying—desperately, passionately—to meet.
Amy DeBellis is a writer from New York. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Flash Frog, HAD, Pithead Chapel, Maudlin House, Monkeybicycle, Atticus Review, and elsewhere. Her debut novel is forthcoming from CLASH Books in September 2024. Read more at www.amydebellis.com.