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The desert is graceless, unspecific. The sun beats down on Lucy’s head. The house is an old Victorian, out of place among the New Mexican pueblos, low-lying houses the color of sand and brush, that populate this area. It’s on a chunk of land the size of a high school football field. It’s a 20-minute drive out of town. Andrew drives, one-handed, his mechanic’s blues rolled up around his elbows, in his 1994 gray station wagon. He loves that car, more than anything. Lucy is in the passenger seat, smoking a menthol cigarette, getting smoke in the cab. She waits for Andrew to say something about it; he never does.
The house is an urban legend. Trinidad, Colorado, is one of the most haunted places in the Southwest. Kids avoid the house. They give it a wide berth. Teenagers come here to have sex. And, lately, people have been coming here in pairs, older people. Couples. “It’s a transcendent experience,” Andrew said, when he was explaining it. He had some friend at work who had done it. “You’ve done acid, right? It’s kind of like that.”
Lucy has never done acid. She took a lot of Vyvanse in college. Andrew knows this about her. He knows everything about her, or at least, he’s supposed to. They’ve had the requisite conversations. They’ve been together a year, an awkward collection of Chinese dinners and okay sex on the couch during commerical breaks. Together is a relative term. To Lucy, it means, “I want to tell you first when something good happens.” To Andrew, it means: ?
“It’ll be great,” Andrew says, taking Lucy’s hand.
She has no choice but to believe him. When he first brought up the idea, she said, “hell, no.” It sounded like a nightmare. It sounded like a nightmare of nightmares.
But three days ago they were shouting outside of a barber shop.
Andrew: You don’t love me. You don’t even know me.
Lucy: Oh, I know you, all right. I know you too well.
This trip is supposed to bring them back together. Not that they’re apart. No one wants to say that. No one wants to think that.
“It’s supposed to bring you closer to the other person,” Andrew said, when he was convincing Lucy to go. “You get totally sense-deprived, and all you can think about is the person you’re with. Some grad students at University of Colorado set it up.”
No one has lived in this house for a long time. Lucy can see that. She can hardly imagine a troop of graduate students, armed with blackout curtains and duct tape, descending on the place. But crazier things have happened. Like, for example, a year ago, when Andrew leaned back on the hood of his gray station wagon and said, “Lucy. Do you want to go out with me?”
He was a friend of a friend. All of her girlfriends had said he was trouble, not the bad boy dangerous motorcycle driving kind of trouble she was used to, but a different, unspecified kind of trouble, the kind of trouble that lurked behind doors and appeared when you least expected it. He was cold. People noticed that about him. He was logical, almost to a fault. He read economics textbooks for fun. He could argue with a brick wall if the brick wall hinted that it might argue back. He’s 25 but acts 17 or 34, depending on the day. He has no plans for the future. He doesn’t want kids, doesn’t want to get married, doesn’t want to live together. He didn’t seem to want anything, except in those fraught particular moments, when he wanted Lucy desperately.
Lucy knows all these things about him, and more. She keeps them filed away in a special part of her brain, the part of her brain that deals with difficult emotions. She looks over at Andrew, who is chewing on the inside of his lip. It’s hot, midday. This was when he could get off work.
Something clicks. She pushes him up the porch steps, hands on his chest. “Lucy,” he says reproachfully. “Lucy, don’t.”
There is no one around. A car passes lazily down the block, slows down, and then keeps moving. She kisses the spot where his neck meets his shoulder. Andrew makes a noise, his back to the house. “Stop.”
Andrew has this idea that Lucy uses sex to distance herself because she doesn’t know how to relate to people on a fundamental level. Lucy does not agree with this idea. Lucy slips her hands inside Andrew’s shirt, feeling his skin. He tastes like blood and metal. “I don’t think this is going to help anything,” Andrew says.
“It’s not going to hurt, either.”
“I said, no.”
Lucy pulls back. Her hair is heavy on her neck, wet with sweat. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing’s wrong. I just want to get this over with.”
“You’re the one who wanted to – never mind.”
Andrew takes Lucy’s hand again. “Come on. Let’s go. We said we were going to do this, and now we’re going to. Don’t you want to?”
Lucy wants to go home. She wants to sleep for a hundred years. She never wants to speak to Andrew again.
She can never say no to him. “Fine,” she says.
Andrew opens the door to the house.
A cavern opens before them.
The first thing that hits is the smell. Grandmother’s basement, mold. A black cat screeches and runs down the stairs. There is a rafter coming down from the kitchen ceiling into the kitchen and the linoleum is peeling. Dust covers every surface. No one has lived here in a long, long time.
“Where are we going?” Lucy asks.
“We should do the speed first,” Andrew says. “Before, you know. We can’t see. Or, I don’t know, whatever you want to do.”
“No, you’re right.”
They pick through the detritus and cut through the kitchen to make it to the living room. Newspapers in piles fill every corner. There are old books, phone books, strange collections of ceramic artworks, rotting paintings, and other junk shoved underneath broken tables and chairs. In the living room, three squashy orange velvet couches surround a low-lying coffee table. “How are we going to measure time?” Lucy says.
“I brought an alarm clock,” Andrew says. “I have water, too. And there’s a bucket, in the room. That’s what my friend said. In case – you know.”
Lucy nods, trying not to think about it. She takes solace in the fact that Andrew won’t be able to see her, doing whatever it is she needs to do.
In front of the couches, there is a busted flat screen TV. Another cat yowls and runs into the other room. Andrew puts his backpack down on the coffee table and spills out the contents. First there are the orange pill bottles, the legal stuff – Adderall, Ritalin. There are four tabs of Xanax, for the comedown, in a little plastic baggie. Then there’s a gram of cocaine. Then the yellow-white crystal, with a little glass pipe. “You don’t have to do it if you don’t want to,” Andrew says. “I just thought, you know, if we’re going to do this, we might as well go all out.”
“And this is what your friend did?”
“Something like this,” he says. “I don’t really know all the specifics. I just know that him and his girl were fighting all the time, and now they’re totally good.”
Andrew and Lucy have been fighting all the time. Three days ago, outside of the barber shop:
Lucy: I don’t know why you insist on arguing all the time.
Andrew: I’m not arguing. You’re arguing. You’re the one who always does this.
Lucy takes one of the orange pill bottles, shakes out four pills, and swallows them with a gulp of water. Together, they make short work of the drugs. She doesn’t touch the crystal, in its little plastic baggie. Andrew turns the pipe over, his eyes focused, and she can see the change in him immediately. She uses her expired student ID to tap out lines of cocaine on the coffee table and does them. Her brain starts making a sound like ticker tape.
“Your nose is bleeding,” Andrew says.
Lucy rubs her nose hard and fast. He passes her a tissue. “Thank you.”
Everything looks sharper. She has more ideas, not all of them good. Andrew kisses her, his mouth cool. His pupils are pinwheels. She used to like that about him, the way his blue eyes showed her everything. Now she doesn’t know how she feels.
Together, they ascend the stairs. Slowly, as not to fall through them. “You ready?” Andrew says.
“I’m ready,” Lucy says, although she has never felt less prepared for anything in her life.
“Okay,” he says, and together, they open the door.
This was Andrew’s idea. Everything is always Andrew’s idea – where they go to dinner, what movies they see. It was Andrew’s idea that they go out in the first place. He has friends at the University of Colorado, psychology department. A bunch of burnouts, just like him. Lucy doesn’t like his friends, although she would never say that out loud, even to herself. Andrew is a good man, he has a steady job at the collision shop, but most of his friends are perpetual grad students messing around in people’s brains and getting whacked out on drugs.
“I don’t do that stuff anymore,” Andrew always says, but Lucy knows that he does, and more often than he’d like to admit. She’s seen him on ecstasy, crystal, coke, not every day, not even every week, but enough to know that he’s still a part of that world. She doesn’t mind. He’s an adult, and he can do what he wants. But she hates that he lies to her about it.
These Psych majors had this idea, Andrew explained to her over dinner a few weeks ago, that if you could put someone in a sensory deprivation chamber, but also fill them with stimulants, they would totally lose their mind. “Because there would be no stimulus,” he told her. “Do you get it? You’d totally turn inward, and your brain would, like, explode.”
“Wouldn’t that make more sense if you did it with like, acid?” she said.
“Everyone’s done LSD experiments,” he said, making a dismissive gesture. “This is a whole new thing.”
And it turned out that two of the students who went to this abandoned house to set up their very own sensory deprivation chamber were in some kind of nasty fight about a girl. They ran the experiment on themselves. Apparently, the combination of the drugs plus the lack of stimulus allowed them to speak candidly about their problems in a way that they never would have been able to talk about on the outside, and they came out best friends.
“It’s kind of a double-edged sword,” Andrew said. “One time, two people started fighting, and one guy totally bit the other guy’s ear off. But usually, it works.”
“Because doing speed makes you think that you’ve got some kind of clarity?” Lucy said, confused. She was still stuck on the idea of someone’s ear getting bitten off.
“I guess so. I mean, what’s clarity?” Andrew said. “If not a state of mind.”
“Can’t we just go to couples therapy?” Lucy said.
“Couples therapy is for married people,” Andrew said.
“I don’t think that’s true,” Lucy said. “Otherwise, they would call it marriage therapy.”
“You’re being pedantic,” Andrew said, in a way that made Lucy sure that the conversation was over.
The room is smaller than Lucy thought it would be. The windows are the first thing she notices. They are covered in cardboard, duct-taped, and hung with blackout curtains. There are three mattresses on the floor, no sheets. There’s a dresser on one side of the room, and this is where Andrew places his water bottle, his backpack, and the alarm clock. “If anything, we can feel our way over here,” he says.
“Right,” she says.
The point is the darkness. The point is finding one another again. The point is finding each other in the dark.
“Should we do it?” Andrew says. “Turn off your phone.”
Lucy does. Andrew takes her phone and puts it in the backpack, then does the same with his own. Andrew messes around with the alarm clock for a minute. “It’s set.”
“Don’t screw it up. I don’t want to be trapped here forever.”
“You’re not going to be trapped here. The door isn’t locked. You can always just leave.”
“No one knows we’re here. We could die here. We could kill each other.”
“Are you planning on killing me?” Andrew gives Lucy a look. She realizes that his face might be the last thing she ever sees.
“No,” she says, finally.
“Well, alright, then.” Andrew turns off the light.
The darkness is different from what Lucy thought it would be. She’s been in the dark before. She’s from the suburbs, outside of Philly – came to Colorado for graduate school, Master’s in Education. It got dark there, real dark. She did summers in Cape Cod, and she remembers turning off the lights and being enveloped in darkness. This is different. Her eyes don’t adjust. Not for a long time. The darkness is a living thing. It takes a while before she says anything. Maybe five minutes.
“Are you still there?” she says.
“Of course I am,” Andrew says. “Where would I be?”
Those Cape Cod summers, lying in the dark, Lucy used to wonder if the darkness could hear her. Now she knows it can. The drugs are making her want to move, but there is nowhere to go. She can’t see the walls, doesn’t know the confines of this room. The mattresses on the floor make it impossible to walk around. She sits down, drumming her fingers against the softness of one of the mattresses. “Come here.”
“Where is ‘here’?”
She reaches out, finds a shin, a thigh, a belt buckle. Stomach, chest. “Hey.”
She can feel his breath, warm on her face. “We could finish what we started downstairs, if you want.”
“If you think that will help anything,” he says. “Besides, that will take up, what, 20 minutes? Is that really what you want to do with your time in here?”
“Not if we do it right. 20 minutes.” Lucy laughs. “Come on.”
“You’re doing it again,” Andrew says. “You’re using sex as a defense mechanism.”
“You’re the one who wanted to do this.”
“And you’re the one who said we needed to talk.” Andrew shifts underneath Lucy’s weight, pushing her halfway off him. Lucy thinks again of those Cape Cod summers, and the way the darkness felt complete around her, like it was holding her close. Now someone is holding her, and she feels alone.
“We do need to talk. But I would rather do other things instead.”
Three days ago, outside of the barber shop, people had stared at them:
Lucy: We need to talk. We can’t just not talk about this.
Andrew: We’re not going to do this in public, Lucy.
Andrew puts his hand in Lucy’s back pocket. She wriggles at the touch. “You know what I want to talk about,” she says. “You don’t have to say anything if you don’t want to. You know how I feel.”
She exhales, frustrated. It is typical of him to shut down at a moment like this, when they are supposed to be figuring things out. It is typical of him to believe that there was some kind of quick fix, some kind of easy way out. But isn’t that what she believes, too? That they can just have sex, and suddenly it won’t be over? She pushes her hand down his chest, undoing his belt buckle in one smooth motion.
“Luce.” His voice holds everything in it. She moves her hand, and he inhales. “Don’t stop.”
“I know,” she says. “I know, I know, I know.”
In the dark, it’s easier. It’s easier to move and not think. There is fumbling, but it doesn’t matter. Some things don’t work properly – they’ve done an awful lot of speed. But they are together, and they know each other well. This is something they can do. This is the only thing they can do.
Lucy finds herself thinking of nothing but the blackness, bright and alive, sparking in front of her vision. Shapes shift and move in front of her eyes. Her mind supplies stimulus where there was none. Every nerve ending in her body feels like it’s on fire. The denim of Andrew’s clothes grate against her bare skin. The stubble of his chin rasps against her face.
When it’s over, they lie half-undressed and fidgeting, trying not to move, because there is nowhere to go. Neither of them want to untangle from the other.
“It’s not enough,” Lucy says.
“What do you mean, it’s not enough?”
“I told you I loved you,” she says. “And you said, ‘Why?’”
“Well, I want to know why,” Andrew says.
“What, do you want a list?”
“Yeah, make me a list.”
“I’m not going to make a list,” she says. She wipes her hand on his thigh. “I just do.”
“That’s not enough, either,” he says.
“I don’t know,” he says.
Outside of the barber shop, three days ago. Andrew had just cut off his shoulder-length hair, and Lucy had come to pick him up. “Do you like it?” he said, smiling.
“You hate it,” he said, and there was malice in his voice. Lucy was never sure which one of them was picking the fights. Maybe it was both of them. Maybe it was neither. Maybe the fights were picking themselves. Maybe they were under the surface, waiting. “You hate it, and you never want to speak to me again.”
“You’d like that, wouldn’t you?”
He made a mock-angry face. “Of course not. Come on, let’s go. I’m hungry.”
“I almost don’t recognize you,” she said.
It was the wrong thing to say. She knew that, and she said it anyways. “In a literal way or in a spiritual way?” he said, an edge to his voice.
She had told him that she loved him the week prior. He had said, “why?” Since then, they had been circling each other like cats, baiting and biting, waiting for the other to strike.
“In any way,” she said.
“Lucy,” he said. “Let’s not do this here.”
“Where should we do it, then?”
“Literally anywhere else.” He paused for a moment. “The dark room.”
He had brought up the dark room idea before. He thought it was interesting. He would take any excuse to do drugs. She was desperate. They would never sit down and have a real conversation otherwise, she knew that. They would start drinking instead. It would devolve into a screaming match. “Okay,” she said. “Let’s do it.”
“You’ll do it with me?” he said.
“I just said I would.”
It wasn’t her idea of a good time. She didn’t like uppers, didn’t like drugs in general. She was afraid of the dark. But she loved him. “I would do anything for you,” she said, and it sounded like a lie in her mouth.
“I know that,” he said. But he didn’t say anything else.
The darkness is everything. Lucy feels like the room has expanded to the size of a small cave. Her eyes have finally adjusted, and there are crags and stalagmites everywhere. Bats flutter in and out from in between the walls. She jumps from mattress to mattress, having kicked her shoes off. They have been sacrificed to the dark room. She will never find them, not until they turn the lights on, but somehow that doesn’t matter. Andrew is somewhere in the room, but that doesn’t matter, either. She jumps and jumps until she hits a wall and bounces off, falling to the ground.
“Are you okay?” Andrew says.
“I’m fine. I just fell.”
His hands find her body in the dark. She wants nothing more than for him to hold her, and tell her that everything will be fine. But it won’t.
“You’re never going to say it, are you?” she says.
“I don’t know,” he says. “I don’t think I feel it the same way you do.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means, of course I care about you,” he says. “I would help you bury the body. I would make you breakfast. I would bail you out of jail. But – I don’t know. That’s a big word. I don’t really even know what it means.”
Something snaps. “I want to get out of here.”
“We’ve only been in here – oh, I don’t know. Not long.”
“I want to go.” Suddenly she wants nothing more than to be out of this place, back out in the world, where there is light and brightness and space. “Let me out. Where’s the damn light switch?”
His hands release her. “Fine,” he says. She can’t tell if he’s disappointed that the experience is over or that they are. Are they? She isn’t sure. She can almost make out his figure in the dark, as he gropes for the light switch. “Close your eyes,” he says. “This is going to be a shock.”
On the car ride home, Lucy’s head bumps against the window. She doesn’t feel like smoking now. She’s taken the Xanax, and it came on strong, like a sword slicing through clouds. She feels woozy and sick. Andrew drives, one-handed as always, his driving hand languid on the steering wheel. The desert bleeds by. Nothing registers. It’s not a long drive, but it feels like a long time before Andrew pulls up at Lucy’s apartment building.
Part of Lucy wants Andrew to stay, to come upstairs. Part of her never wants to see him again. She thinks about the logistics of it. They have a lot of the same friends. They go to the same bars. She’s plotting his death when he asks: “Are you okay?”
“Do you want me to come up?”
“Whatever you want.”
“Let me just find parking,” he says.
Lucy gets out of the car, unsteady on her feet. She walks up the stairs. Inside the apartment, she peels off her clothes, which are soaked in sweat, and leaves them on the floor in the kitchen. She starts the shower, turning the water as hot as it can go.
She gets into the shower. Andrew knows where the spare key is. The water pounds into her skull, breaking it into little pieces. She doesn’t feel better, but she also doesn’t feel worse. Somewhere in the distance, she hears Andrew knock on the front door. He knocks again, louder. She hears him banging on the door. She doesn’t know why he doesn’t use the key. She keeps waiting to hear his key in the lock. He sounds desperate. He hits the door louder and louder. She doesn’t get out of the shower for a long, long time.