Thanksgiving break – a well needed rest coming just before finals. I drive home Wednesday -six hours up the barren gut of California. A desolate drive usually spent with a high school friend half awake. This time Mike has brought along Serg, a friend from his college. They both snooze most of the drive. My time home will be short and it is already neatly scheduled from Wednesday evening to Sunday afternoon, when we take the long drive back.
Wednesday evening after I have eaten dinner with my parents and said hello to my cats I’m out to see my high school friends. First I pick up Mike and Serg. Next we drive over to Jason’s house. Jason is down from Redding, he’s been living up there with his girlfriend since I started this school year. When I greet him we actually hug – a manly patting hug but a hug none the less. His girlfriend is there and I wonder how I’m going to fit everyone in my small car but she gives Jason a big kiss and leaves. A bit relieved, I drive us to Aaron’s house. Aaron is living in his mom’s garage. It’s actually a nice setup, he has made it cozy with couches, a nice sound system, every video game imaginable, a computer and lots of random objects de art. Aaron is there along with Ben. Ben’s a nice guy, but he’s not one of the four. Jason, Aaron, Mike and I have been friends since Mike was Michael and Aaron’s parents were still together –since 5th grade.
I’ve already decided that I’m going to try marijuana this vacation. I’ve tried it before but it hasn’t worked and I’m convinced that it doesn’t have an effect on me. As we all make small talk, Aaron and Mike construct a ‘gravity bong’ – the king daddy of marijuana consumption. These boys all grew up in Santa Cruz so I guess it should be no surprise that they are experienced with the hobby. Strangely, they didn’t let me know they did the stuff until after I was in college.
As I wait for them, I look over Aaron’s garage. It is familiar, although not as much as other things in this town. Aaron moved his stuff out here after high school, so the memories are only a few years old. The room is lit by hanging Christmas lights and colored bulbs –a lamp in the corner provides the only white light. The décor is haphazard; Aaron has art books and CDs stacked on his shelves and there is video game promotional paraphernalia on display, gleaned from his work in a video game store. A glowing red ‘heat dish’ in the corner facing the couch is a new addition. I wonder just how cold it gets out here at night in the winter.
To mark the occasion, Mike digs his “secret stash” out of his pocket. I’ve been hearing about this stuff; it has a reputation. Ben is sitting behind the bong –a detergent pail filled with water– with a look of glee on his face. Marijuana always seems to bring such glee to Ben. The look on his face will be one of the few things that sticks with me through the evening. I kneel down and Mike prepares the bong, he fills a partially submerged two liter bottle (sans bottom) with thick smoke. It churns under the green plastic. I’m given advice on how to take it in as deep as possible and then I put my lips onto the mouth of the bottle and inhale.
I’m not expecting much as I stand up and make room for someone else. Yet less than a minute later my legs feel woozy and I shove Serge over to make room on the couch. What follows is one of the strangest, most frightening, most revealing events of my life.
The drug hits me hard and fast. My entire body begins to pulse, I’m visualizing my flesh pulsating into sound waves. Before I can register what is happening I am losing touch with my body. I don’t even notice that my mind is also going numb. I can only connect to the world outside of my head if I focus intently on one particular thing. I burn images of Serg’s smiling profile and Ben’s wide grin into my mind. My use of words fails me almost instantly. I mutter like a fool, I can’t remember the name of the drug I just took. I’m calling it ‘nirvana’ and am fully aware of the irony but too disoriented to laugh. I manage to say ‘mirvana’ and then finally articulate “marijuana”.
Soon I am gripped with fear, I keep expecting the drug to slow its consumption of my faculties but it only seems to be getting stronger faster. I think to myself, “It’s not supposed to be like this, this is much too powerful.” I am aware that I’m sitting slack jawed and unmoving. I no longer have any concept of time; it feels like I’ve been sitting at the end of the couch for an eternity; my brain is experiencing a strange dual sensation of tearing through ideas faster than I can focus on them and repeating the same thoughts continually so I can’t help but focus intently on everything to pass through my head as each thought is frustratingly merged to the previous. I can’t relax or ignore anything; the lights are bothering me and I feebly demand that they are shut off before I close my eyes. I only sink deeper into my own subconscious. Aaron tells me to calm down, “nobody has ever died from pot.” I know this but I can’t help but feel paranoid. I grip tenaciously to his words, “I’m not going to die” It is very relieving –relieving that is until the panic presently creeps back into my thoughts. I periodically ask them how much time has passed –I’m hoping it will all end soon. I can’t understand hours or minutes and suggest they tell me what fraction of the total duration I’ve endured. “Am I half way done? A quarter?” “A quarter Aaron answers.” “Jesus’” I think, “It feels like an eternity.”
It is surprising how much this ‘trip’ resembles experiences I have had while sleeping. Sometimes I dream in excruciating slow motion. Sometimes I have sensations of staring into infinity; a deep, dark emptiness faces me and I feel it gripping at my insides. When this happens I wake up, take a few deep breaths and turn my mind over to some pleasant thought before drifting back to sleep. Not now, now I am stuck facing this eternity. I can’t wake myself up. I begin to relate the sensation to death. I manage to crawl out of my darkness and ask anyone who will listen if it’s cold. It’s only a suspicion; I’m not actually sure if I’m cold but they give me gloves and a blanket anyway. At first I look at the gloves and laugh –I can’t possibly put them on. How helpless have I become? “This is nonsense,” I think, and I weakly struggle to put them on. My physical needs met, I slip back into the darkness.
After what seems like an eternity of struggle, Aaron breaks in on my thoughts and convinces me to get up and go on a walk with him. I make pitiful excuses -maybe I’ll collapse in the street- but eventually I allow myself to persuaded –maybe the fresh air will do me good. I tell Aaron that I “stared death in the face”; I associate death with eternity, a great empty nothingness. I’m reminded of childhood fears, fears of the uncertainty of death. Such an emptiness is terrifying –it begs for a god to pray to: to take refuge in. It’s just me and the dark corners of my brain. I tell Aaron that I fear the loss of control. “That says something about you doesn’t it?” he asks me. Even in my state I feel a pang at his comment. I never realized how much I need control; I need control over myself, my life, my surroundings. Under the influence of the drug I had lost it all, I could not even control my own body.
I begin to rebuild confidence and the drug eases its grip. We walk a while, Aaron talking, myself responding haltingly. Suddenly I declare “My mouth just caught up with my brain!” A slew of words streams out nearly nonstop for the next hour as I try to articulate everything that is churning around in my head. I’m not sure how much sense I’m making but I figure Aaron knows me well enough to piece together meaning out of the important words.
I can only remember a fraction of what I said during that walk through the dark cold streets of Aaron’s neighborhood. I had no idea how long we walked. Our pace was brisk, the air was cold on my face and our breath hung in misty clouds in the Santa Cruz dampness. I don’t think I looked up from the pavement but a few times during that walk. Part of my brain was busy observing the cracks in the street –filled with black tar where they had been patched up and tracing strange patterns over the asphalt. Eventually Aaron interrupted me to ask if we could go back in; he didn’t want the others to worry. I had suspected that I was worrying them, but it was the kind of thing no one wanted to bring up. They didn’t want to scare me, and I didn’t want to know how bad I was taking it. Aaron told me a few days later that we had walked the neighborhood for over an hour; it seemed like only fifteen minutes. I’m not sure what I said during that time; the veils of my brain were lifted and I set free my deepest perturbations. I am usually a very guarded person and I never share my concerns with anyone else; it felt great to release everything, to let it spew out on those dark streets. What didn’t feel good though, was facing those thoughts; sitting on the couch cut off from the world around me –powerless. I promised myself countless times that if I emerged with my sanity I would never take another drug again.
Thursday morning I’m pulled out of bed and transferred to the car. I don’t fully wake up until we’re rear-ended an hour from Sonora. We’re on our way to my aunt’s house. Usually we go to my grandparent’s on Thanksgiving. This holiday is special; I’m not even going to see my grandparents. My grandmother is recovering from hip surgery so they’re staying home. We are going to spend Thanksgiving with my Aunt, Uncle, his ex-wife and his grown children and their families. We don’t have much time with my aunt; she isn’t expected to live to Christmas because she has a brain tumor. The doctors couldn’t get the whole thing out and the drugs and chemo were making her sick.
We were there from Thursday morning to Friday afternoon. Over the course of our visit I saw her four times; she was always in bed; in the same position –propped up with pillows, under the blankets, with a cat sleeping on her legs. She was drugged to kill the pain in her head. When I’d go into her room with my mom we’d talk to her and see if she would open her eyes. Uncle Bob would speculate that she was asleep when she wouldn’t look at us but I knew she could hear us. I had rather recently been in a similar state and I knew that even in the most mind numbing stupor you are still to some degree aware of what is going on around you. I imagined what it must be like for her to hear our voices and to know we were there with her. I hoped she didn’t feel ashamed that she couldn’t talk to us.
When just the sound of your voice is so infinitely important, it is amazing how difficult it is to think of things to say. My mom mirrored my thoughts by indicating that it was important for us to talk. We each held one of her hands and talked about trivial things. About the cat, posters on the wall, whatever we could. I couldn’t help but remember my own fears and uncertainties and I knew she must be facing them, locked as she was in her own mind. My mom told me that Aunt Cynthia had told her, when she was still aware, that she wasn’t afraid anymore. It was Bob, my grandparents and my Uncle Nick that hadn’t come to accept it.
It was difficult for me not to focus on the cat. The cat was a pleasing distraction; when we woke her up she was very feisty. I felt guilty that I was playing with the cat but Cynthia was for all appearances now asleep and my mind was taxed for things to talk about. Jillian, one of Bob’s granddaughters came in and sat with us –her eyes were red from crying. She had a cat toy and we teased the cat. We laughed and gasped as she tried to swat or bite us. The cat would periodically startle and her eyes would widen comically. Although it was funny, it also reminded me of my aunt’s eyes as she struggled to focus on my dad when he came in to see her. It took all of her energy to focus on one person right in front of her. She would feebly smile; I think for our benefit more than anything, it looked like so much work for her.
As Thursday drug on I became weak with hunger; I snacked on whatever I could find but not much looked appetizing. All the preparation was being put into Thanksgiving dinner and as a result I found myself without breakfast or lunch. I felt like I was relapsing into a drugged stupor; I couldn’t focus and I felt lethargic and sleepy. I began to panic -maybe I was still drugged! It is surprising how much hunger-induced lethargy resembles a drugged state of mind. I put on my shoes and sweatshirt and walked out the front door. Although the sun was bright and shining, the air was brisk and I kept my hands in my pockets. I wandered away from the house down the narrow, paved roads of the housing community. The big houses were interspersed with plenty of trees and the yards were blanketed in brown-orange leaves.
I worried that I would get lost and tried to pull myself together. Once again, walking proved the key to my sanity. Soon the fresh air had my mind back on track. I marveled at the sky, the trees, and the birds. Especially the birds. The trees seemed to be full of them, chirruping and darting between the branches. I heard rapping on a tree and stopped, hoping to see a woodpecker. I was surprised to see that it was a tit, rapping his beak against a narrow branch. I didn’t know they did that. I continued along downhill. Except for the birds, the air was completely still. There were no people, no cars, no noises; I was alone. It was the kind of alone I could relish all day long. The kind of alone I had relished all day long when I was younger. When I was a child I would sometimes become completely lost in myself and wander about adrift in my own imagination for hours. My own mind is such familiar territory it's a wonder how I was frightened and unfamiliar in it the night before.
I passed a house with two dogs in the back yard. They barked at me with tails wagging. I encouraged them with a woof of my own. I turned back and retraced my steps, when it looked like the road wasn’t going to loop back to the main drive. By the time I returned to the house I was feeling much improved. We soon ate and I felt better for the rest of the evening.
The next day everyone else began to leave. I helped my mom put the beds back together. When our work was done it was time to say goodbye. Aunt Cynthia seemed to know she needed to wake up. She was able to look me in the eyes and as I bent down to hug her she haltingly told me how I was looking the best she had ever seen me. How was I supposed to respond? I hugged her silently.
On Saturday I hung out with Aaron. Jason had already returned to Redding with his girlfriend and we were unable to get a hold of Serg and Mike –it turned out they were out with his parents. We did what I never get to do at school –nothing.
We drove to Pleasure Pizza, bought two huge slices apiece and then walked down to pleasure point. The sea air was cool and fresh. From living in LA I have come to associate warm air with the city. Warm air never rests, it is always haunted by noises. Cold air is peaceful and invites you to wrap yourself in warm clothes and cut yourself off from the outside world. We looked over the cliff at the beach and were surprised to see the tide receded and much of the sea floor revealed. Neither Aaron or I had ever seen it so low here before.
We walked down the cliffside steps and wandered out to the uncovered sea bed. At first I called the rock and water “tide pools“, but I soon retracted my comment. Tide pools are rocks marked by deep holes filled with sea water. This was much smoother and completely covered in sea grass. There were recesses filled with water, but they were wider and shallower than tide pools. We first walked up to a family digging in the grass with trowels. “Are they digging for clams?” Aaron wondered. “How could they, we’re walking on rock.” I responded. But as we got closer I realized that the rock was broken by patches of sand. They had a white bucket that we were naturally drawn to investigate. In it we found countless clams, a crab and a small octopus. A dirty boy officiously listed off the contents for us like an itinerary.
These pools were like no tide pools I had ever seen. Wandering over the slick sea grass and rocks, Aaron and I began a quest of our own. We called each other over whenever one of us found something interesting. My focus became intense, on the ground beneath me, and the rest of the universe ceased to be. It was just the two of us and the rocks and the sea; I had to leave a spot in my conscious for the sea or a swell might soak my feet. I stepped carefully, judging each raised spot in the grass for durability. We found starfish that we picked up and prodded. They were so hard I wondered how the seagulls could possibly eat them. We saw crabs scuttling around under the water; not the small green ones from the natural bridges tide pools, but bigger ones with bright red joints and plant life growing off of their backs. We found fields of hermit crabs inhabiting pretty porcelain-looking shells. I found one of the shells with it’s natural occupant still present; a smooth white snail, but not like a garden snail; it felt like gel. I found a small white sea slug with what looked like yellow and black hairs growing off of it’s back. I brushed them around with a stem of seaweed, afraid to touch it with my finger. We were scrutinizing a rock and I poked a granular-looking part with my finger. It spurted water like a lime slice being squeezed and we both jumped. The entire rock-face was actually a colony of anemones disguised in a coat of sand!
When we got tired of the tide pools Aaron and I wandered along the beach. We commented on the sea-swept rocks, comparing them to battle ships and modern art. We had taken the same art classes in high school so we could critique them with a common language. After intense observation of a particular piece, I declared nature to be a better artist than most humans.
Further down the beach we found mechanical contraptions of pulleys, stairs, and wood, that allowed people living on the cliffs beach access. I was amused by their zany, random appearance and clambered over rocks to get a better view. A pair of neck-less pug dogs zipped by on the beach, reminding me of stiff torpedoes buzzing over the sand.
As it got dark we turned back and, climbing the stairs, I felt my focus relaxing, broadening; I began to take in everything as a whole again. Specifics re-merged into a general reality. It was like emerging from a deep sleep; my mind had awakened but my body was still light with serenity.