Blue Bruising

Phoenix Tefel

Lana wanted to feel good. Her bones creaked as she passed the threshold of her front door, her feet settling into a well-developed path of imprints on the carpet. Her husband, Dean, looked up from his perch on the couch at her, stretching his back that was perpetually sore from the cracked brown office chair that he spent most of his hours in. The washing machine was dripping without showmanship from her frowzy kitchen, and the cats only stared at her from the floor, as if they barely registered any presence at all. She attempted to scoop the smallest into her arms, rub her face into its neat fur, but it only pushed its paws against her chest in rebuttal, and she dropped it back to the ground wordlessly.

Last year, when Lana had moved out by herself for the second time, she realized how prone she was to loneliness. She and Dean had spent almost every waking moment together before. They both got out of work at five, he was twenty minutes away and she only fifteen—with this synced schedule, there was hardly a moment they didn’t share the same breath. It had been a big problem in their marriage. Too many bouts of dead silences or thick and coiled tension when they spent too long in the same room. It wasn’t as if anything had happened, as if they harbored some immortal anger at the other that forced them mute. It was only an idle new aspect of their relationship, a natural unfolding that left her stomach empty each time she came through their front door. It was infuriating, and one morning after they sat on the same couch and ate breakfast in silence, Lana, fueled by pure desperation to feel something had an overwhelming urge to leave that house, that man, that life. She was packed up and gone by lunchtime.

She had moved into a shabby, one-room apartment saddled by a road that took her forty-five minutes to reach the firm by. After a few days of waking up, driving a lonely and wispy road, and never speaking or listening to anyone, it struck her. Suddenly, she had nobody to talk to even if she wanted to.

Not knowing what to do with her hands, she had taken up driving for long stretches. She liked seeing the next towns over, seeing who had the best Christmas decorations in Linton and comparing the school sizes of Holsworth and Banner Mare. She did this for a month or so until, on a Tuesday evening, she thought: Well, campus is only an hour out. She hadn’t been back to her university since the alumni dinner ten years ago, where they had tried to strong-arm money out of her and Dean, but she had the gas and nothing else to occupy her time so she drove the distance anyway.

She had no trouble remembering her way around. She rolled through the school parking lots, the campus buildings, all of her old haunts with ease. She was tormented by reminiscence, biting her nail at the spots that she hadn’t thought of in years—being drunk outside of the north side dorms, hiding in the gazebo with her friends while being caught in the rain. Feeling particularly nostalgic, Lana traveled out to that old frat house that she had frequented as a restless young law student—the site where she and Dean had first met. Equally drunk and strong minded, back in those days they had often heard talk of each other but never met. One night they had ended up at the same party, a mutual friend introduced them and that was that.

As she rolled upon the aged fraternity, a little older and not feeling much wiser, her heart caught in her throat. She wasn’t religious, but in these times she was given to a small prayer now and then, and often caught herself wishing for a sign, a childish notion that she would never admit to. However, when she stopped in front of that huge white manor and saw the “For Sale” picket sign, she had thought it a sigil of sorts. When she called Dean to tell him about it and they drove out together to go see it, he had found it just as awe-inspiring. They had signed the lease less than a week later.

That was over a year ago now, an intangible relic from a long time past. The house that once looked like a roaring wave of treasure was now an empty shore—any droves of jewels long since buried. She wanted to feel a pulse of glitz in her simmering life, something to shock the color back in her. This house was just too big, too brown, too banal—it made her stomach hollow. Dean had been feeling the heat fading and fade from the hearth, had watched pretty dresses one by one be folded and pressed into drawers. He stayed at work as late as he could, reworking documents that had long been finished and boring the secretaries half to death with forced small talk, but he never beat out the inevitable of coming back to this house—their house—and watching his wife haunt the place he didn’t know she had died in.

Now, in their sour living room together, they both felt awkward. She carded an unnerved hand through her hair. He twiddled at his tie.

“So,” she drew out suddenly, lips pursed. “We should do something tonight.”

“Oh yeah?” he perked up. “You got something in mind?”

Mmhmm, she mused and calmly pivoted up the stairs to her room without a word. There was a drawer in the nightstand by her bed where she kept clandestine things. Old pictures of ex-boyfriends, inflated receipts, a bundle of colored vibrators and a dusty condom box—and then off in the corner, kept in a cold tin pushed to the back, lay a lone jewel. Grabbing at the compartment and picking the lid apart, she produced from within a crumpled Ziploc purse filled with skimpy and twisted gnarls of mushrooms.

She picked at the seal. She wondered if Eve had twisted the apple from the tree fueled by nothing but the boredom of it all. Lana had dabbled with mushrooms in college but had never taken a full dose before. She would hesitate on most occasions, but the day was dragging over into the night, lowering an apricot sun from a golden and silky sky—how often did the world get that look in its eye like it did today?

Dean knew what she had for them before she descended the stairs and showed it to him in the palm of her hand, beaming as if it were a pleasant little thing.

He looked from her hand to his watch, and back to her grin.

“Okay,” Dean said. “Let’s do them.”

Lana had almost forgotten how terrible magic mushrooms tasted. While she gulped dramatically on a glass of orange juice, Dean had gone off to rummage through their cabinets for a record to put on.

“Can’t do this stuff without music, Lana,” he explained to her after he had finished his portion of morsels readily, and watched her cringe as she swallowed tiny bits. It had been a while since they had used the record player. If they owned a duster she would have thought to maybe dust it.

It had been a long, long time, Lana thought, since she had done anything like this. She couldn’t remember how long it took for these things to kick in. She sat at the dining room table, fingers loose against a chilled, half-empty glass when Dean suddenly called, “I found one!” from the living room. She heard him breathe a few puffs of air onto the player and after a moment, he came back into the kitchen, rubbing his hands.

“This is a good one.”

There was silence before a low and musty beat began to hit from the other room. It felt dully familiar until she heard Morrissey’s dark voice waft through the walls.

“God, I haven’t heard this in years,” she said.

Dean laughed as he grabbed onto the doorframe. A few songs into the album and The Smiths sounded a little off, like they only existed as vapor and smog. Driving in your car, I never want to go home because I haven’t got one anymore.

Her stomach lilted and she stood up suddenly. “I better make food now while I still can.”

Dean followed her into the kitchen as she turned on the stove and rummaged through the cupboards. He stared at a calendar on the fridge, still on the past month and with nothing written in it.

Lana found a box of pasta and thought it easy enough. She filled a pot with water and turned back, beckoned by the churning ring of smoke on the stove. The music beat the back of her neck while the fridge groaned behind her and the stove heat tickled her palms as she ran her hand just above the burner. She looked at her warped knuckles, watched her fingers bend and bubble against the red backlight.

She could see the dun-colored hair of the man in her kitchen. She could almost make out the way his hands shook against the countertop as he stared at her.

“This is where we first kissed,” he said to no one, to anyone.

Back against the fridge, he kicked out a leg in front of the other and god, he looked twenty years younger.

“I remember it,” she breathed. “You had your Doc Martens then.”

“Yeah.” He laughed, an airy and jumbled sound. “Most of the art majors did.”

She could see them on him. A young and vibrant man was right before her eyes again, when the shadows hit just right. The night he had kissed her had been a raucous evening, with her lips the only soft touch of reprieve. He had pulled her aside from the crowd in the kitchen, back into a disheveled pantry.

“Hey,” he had whispered to her.

“Hey,” she grinned back.

They kissed each other then and didn’t look back

Lana looked at Dean now, side-eyed the pantry that had been shut off at some point with a wood panel.

“Hey,” he offered, and she looked away from him.

The beguiling eighties beat seemed to stretch and pull at the moment, making it last for eternity. No matter how much her brain was scattering, when she came to she would find herself right where she had just left off, the singer on an indefinite loop of stopping and starting. Take me out tonight, I want to see people and I want to see life. The present meant nothing, she realized, at least not now. She felt, by all standards, a woman out of time. The drugs had her vision blurred between the past and the now, settling her in some in-between place with the jumble of it all. If she found it difficult to love Dean in that empty and haunted house, then she only had to adjust her view. There were moments left over here, moments you could capture and grind your teeth on.

“You grabbed me by the hip,” she ghosted her sides with her hands. “I remember how bubbly I felt.”

Dean wanted to make her shine that way now. If he could only reach out to her and put his fingers on the dips in her sides, see her smile that bright and jarring grin she had tucked away somewhere.

He reached past her shoulder to turn off the stove. “We can do that later,” he shook his head at all protests. “I want to lay with you for a second.”

Her lips turned down but she followed him into the living room. The cats cleared a path for them, and it suddenly hit Dean that he hated them. He thought about “accidentally” leaving the door open one day and letting them return to whatever they came from. Few things could capture her attention as they could. He hardly got a kind word, but these apathetic creatures were showered in all the love she apparently did have to give. Every time she bent to the floor to kiss at their aloof foreheads it was like she was rubbing it in his face. He felt angry at her suddenly, a hot and sputtering spell as he watched her sit awkwardly on the couch, as if she didn’t recognize it. When had she become such a sullen creature? When they first met, everything was color—now it was all wishy-washy and umber. His hands, taut and warm, vibrated violently against his thighs. Things he hadn’t thought about in years were knocking right on the door as he stared at her crisscrossed on their beat couch like she was a child again. All those times she had left him alone, the cold indifference she would exhibit to him—the years of watching her suffer silently no matter how hard he tried to prove to her that it didn’t have to be that way. The urge to yell all these things at her bubbled in his throat, but he couldn’t find the words. He could only think about this house, and how the night they shared here that had once seemed beautiful and palpable now only looked frigid and pale.

“You were supposed to be with another guy that night,” he said, sitting on the opposite end of the loveseat and crossing his arms. Why did his hands shake so?

“What?” Lana raised an eyebrow as she scooted closer to him.

“You showed up to that party with someone else. You were with some other guy and then you kissed me.”

“We weren’t serious,” Lana shrugged, and she wasn’t serious now either. Her pupils were almost brimming over her irises. She had a toothy smirk on her face.

“What’s so funny?” Dean demanded. He bit his lip, staring at her hotly. “Why would you do that to that guy, huh? How do I know you wouldn’t do that to me?”

“Where is this coming from?” Lana’s face slacked slightly. He looked so blue in this dark room.

“I just want to know that’s all.”

“That whole night and that’s the only thing you think of?”

“I mean you were with him, so you had to like him!”

“What does it matter? I liked him at some point, but I went home with you didn’t I?”

He bit at his nail. “And now you regret it every day—so what comfort should that give me?”

“Why can’t you just think about that night like it was? We fell in love then.”

“Did we?” he asked suddenly, face twisting. “We were wasted. We always were at our best together when we’re trashed.” His eyes had hardened. “You won’t even look me in the face when we’re sober.”

The Smiths voices kept ringing, a gallery of smug onlookers. To die by your side, is such a heavenly way to die.

“It's not you,” she began slowly. His hands were clenching against bits of loose fabric from his dress shirt, and she began to bounce her feet rapidly against her shoes. She’d never had a bad trip before, she didn’t want to start now. “This house just isn’t what I thought it would be like. I don’t feel at home here.”

“You’ve felt that way long before this place.” Dean shook his head. “I don’t know why either of us thought coming here would be a good idea. It was such an impulsive, stupid decision.”

Crossing her arms indignantly, Lana pursed her lips. “Then why did you do it then?”

“I don’t know!” he exasperated, tossing his hands. “You left me alone in our old place and I just wanted to be with you again! When you wanted to do this together, well what choice did I have? I wanted this place to be the magic fix you saw in it too.”

Lana picked at her finger as she stared at the stained living room walls. How had she not noticed those before they moved in? How had they both missed the kitchen sink that never fully turns off or the broken linoleum tiles by the fridge? Her bedroom ceiling had a water stain right above the mattress. This house wasn’t anything like they thought it would be.

“Well, why isn’t it?” she demanded, more to herself than to Dean, though his chest rumbled as if it were meant for him anyways. “There’s history here, real moments are alive as long as this house stands. I fell in love with you here before, there’s nothing stopping it from happening again.”

“Again?” he repeated, mulling the word on his tongue. “Again. As if to say you no longer feel that way about me.”

“No,” she shook her head. “I still do love you. I’ll always have love for you. I think it’s just become...different now.” She looked at her hands. “I don’t know why, and I don’t know if you feel it too, but everything is just different now. No matter how hard I try, there’s nothing I can do to get it back.”

Her vision was starting to get exceptionally distorted. The record seemed to be coming to an end and was trailing off endlessly all around them. There is a light that never goes out drearily echoed off the walls. Dean was looking anywhere but at her—or maybe he was looking her right in the eyes. She couldn’t really tell.

Dean had never regretted anything more in his life. This house was filled to the rafters with reminders of all those college things he turned his back against: the art, the drinking, the reckless nights—all the things he would pick out and destroy from his timeline if he could. He had never expected Lana to become one of them, but sitting with her now and watching her wither away made his gut kick.

“When I pictured a life here with you all those years ago,” he said softly, “it looked nothing like this.”

He wished he hadn’t eaten the mushrooms. Her skin stuck out against the mattress like a poltergeist and he wished he hadn’t eaten the mushrooms. He felt too in control, too grounded for someone whose life had just been heaved from the roots. Now when he looked at Lana he only saw a wispy antique from a time that was long over. He didn’t want to stay in this house and decay with her and all the rest of it.

He draped his body on the mauve carpet, closing his eyes and sprawling his hands on the floor as if it was a goodbye. He pulsed against the ground, the high was really elevating now. Lana brought herself to the floor wordlessly beside him, hair sprawling around the crown of her head.

She could see in his face that he was going to leave her come morning time. Twenty-two years and never once had he been the one to go. He was looking at her with eyes she hadn’t seen before.

“Oh,” she said softly, frowning as she grabbed at his hand, desperate to breathe the same air just a little while longer.