Warm summer night, window open, leaves cutting the streetlight into pieces that flickered across the bedroom floor.
We lay on top of the sheets, him on his side, me under his arm. I said I couldn’t sleep.
“Let me show you a trick.”
He pulled his arm out from under me and rolled onto his back. “I used to do this when I was little,” he said. “You put your thumbs against your eyes—you got them there?—and push. Not hard, but not light either.”
“Keep pushing,” he told me. “Don’t stop.”
I didn’t stop.
“Do you see it?” he whispered.
“Lights. Shapes. Anything.” He paused. “You go on a trip.”
He got real quiet. Our bodies were no longer touching but I could feel the electricity, the heat, the thousand little hairs standing on their ends. I listened to his breath and waited for my own show, my own light parade. I saw only faint traces, dim colors, a couple gray buzzing lights.
He rolled back towards me. “Where did you go?”
“I don’t know. I don’t think I went anywhere.”
He was quiet for a moment. Then he pulled me close, kissed the top of my head and fell asleep, his breath pouring over me all night long.
noun: a voyage or journey between two destinations
verb: to stumble or fall; to take a trip
usages: take a trip; go on a trip; that’s a trip; that’s trippy; you’re tripping; you’re tripping out; you’re tripped balls; I got tripped up; I’m a little tripped out
Alcatraz night tour, four months later: winter, cold, the boy gone. Playing tourist in my own city: listening to my headset, clomp-clomping along the cement floor, milling around the other tourists, milling around like me.
I stopped in front of the solitary confinement cell. The headphones buzzed, men talking about what they did, how they passed the time holed up in the black like that.
A gravely voice said:
“But if you would close your eyes—like right now, close your eyes, seal your eyes off with your hand—with a little concentration, you can see a light. And pretty soon that light will get brighter. And you’ve gotta concentrate on it—not a short while; it takes time and practice. But pretty soon you can almost put your own TV there, and you can see things and you can go on trips, and that’s what I did.”
I rewound the headset, listened again.
The tourists moved around me like phantoms.
noun: a trip from one place to another and back, usually over the same route
Meiko in the closet with her knees to her chest, pupils swollen and crying about the circles.
Next morning, cereal and cigarettes, Shannon says, “Did you go to the circle place again?”
Seamus had a fire of red hair, a mask of freckles and acne, and wide cavernous eyes that blinked like camera lenses.
He hung out by himself mostly. But my senior year, when most of my friends were gone, when it was just me and Timothy and a ground-scored boom box at the old kick-it spot, Seamus started lurking around.
Sometimes we’d smoke together. I can’t remember one conversation we ever had, one thing we did other than sit with our jackets pulled over our heads and blaze. Sitting in there, in our own little tent of haze with the lighter flickering, his face would seem suddenly clearer, sharper, three inches from mine and shadowed. The sounds from the world would fade, and we’d be in the only place there was—a dark place, quiet place.
Then we’d pull the tent back and he’d get up and walk away: hands in his pockets, head down and slightly tilted, mouth clenched like he was trying not to mutter.
“You know, he used to be normal,” Timothy said one day.
“Bad trip in middle school. Never came back.”
When author Iris Murdoch began her decent into Alzheimer’s, she described it as “a very, very bad, quiet place, a dark place.”
The morning of my worst comedown, the tie-dyed curtains pulsed, the heating vent whispered, shadow men darted around the corners.
It felt as though the top layer of reality had peeled back, sat there dangling like a flap of skin, and I could see through to the other side. I could feel its gravity, the little phantom men pulling me closer. It would have been easy to go with them.
I sat on the bottom bunk, curled my knees against my chest. I tried to focus my eyes, my big swollen eyes, on things I knew were there: the floorboards, the CD cases, the piles of laundry. There were not little bugs in the laundry, I was pretty sure about that.
Just in case, I got up to stomp them out.
The night before was the farthest I’d journeyed, the deepest I’d ventured: two 40s, a handful of pills and a bag of yellow street speed. I’d gone spinning, racing, careening right up to the edge of myself and stood there, staring, until it was time to come back.
When the sun came itching through those curtains, I caught a flash of my face in my mirror; it was a caricature, pale and ravenous with cartoon eyes and fingers digging at the lips.
I couldn’t let my parents see me, I decided. There was no way I could leave my room and let my parents see me.
I waited it out in a clammy little ball. It took hours for the flap to fall back, but slowly it did. The scampering men went to their home and I went to mine, limbs and toes and shrank-back pupils and all.
But something felt dimmed, dulled, incomplete. I couldn’t shake the feeling that not all of me had come back. Those men had snatched a piece of me, a sliver of my youthful brightness, and taken it with them to that other place.
So I went back. Looking.
I make arrangements for a pint-sized journey.
I’m the queen of this condition.
I’m an expert on making the trip
and now they say I’m an addict.
Now they ask why.
–Anne Sexton, “The Addict”
Dig went slowly, steadily, quietly over the course of years.
It didn’t seem that way at first. It seemed like an explosion: hollering and crashing and breaking glass and throwing elbows in the middle of the pit. Chin held back in the sharp glare of the police lights, eyes blurry and staring at the pavement while the cops yelled, “What’s your name? Tell us your name!” Dig too gone to answer.
The light in my eyes, flashing, piercing: “Tell us his name!”
“That’s a girl.”
“Tell us her name!”
“I don’t know.”
“Are you fucking with us? What do you mean you don’t know?”
“I mean I don’t know.”
Dig slumping forward, the cop yanking her back up.
She was the craziest of all the crazy kids—the one most driven to the edge, the one least able to stay on this side of the edge. We all watched her go; in the alleys and parks and train stations of that town, she roamed deeper into the labyrinth of her own mind and the doors closed a little more each time.
Dig’s real name was Samantha. I learned that a few months later, when she got clean. She’d gotten court-ordered just a few weeks before my own trip came crashing down, before I’d sat on the bottom bunk again and watched the curtains pulse and the men scamper and known that I could only play tourist a bit longer—eventually I’d have to stay on one side or the other.
So I called Dig and asked if she’d take me to a meeting. She met me on the sidewalk; we walked up the stairs; we sat on those metal folding chairs and drank Folgers out of Styrofoam cups and didn’t really talk, just sat there like people washed up from a shipwreck.
We were all hoping that this was it for Dig—that she’d get her shit together, that the fog would clear and our friend would come back, the one who’d wandered a little further on each of those trips until eventually only the body came back. And at first it seemed like she would: she stayed clean, got her GED, moved into a little cottage in the back of her parents’ house. She was doing all the right things, doing everything I was doing, and we all kept waiting.
But the fog never lifted. In fact, it got thicker. She’d hold down jobs, then not; she’d take classes, then not. She’d disappear and we’d discovered she hadn’t actually disappeared but just dug deeper into that little cottage—drawn the curtains and sealed the windows and not left for days, weeks.
“It’s her parents,” people would say.
“It’s that medication they’ve got her on,” they’d say.
“No, it’s all the bad trips she took.”
In truth, we didn’t know what it was.
noun: poetic or informal term meaning a gradual transformation in which the form is retained but the substance is replaced or altered
Of course it wasn’t as simple as getting clean.
Of course it wasn’t as easy as closing the door, sealing the lid, switching the flap.
Of course the little phantom men weren’t so careful to stay on their side. They still returned for years, out of the corners of my eyes when I was tired. I still heard their whispers, felt them scratching around the sides of things.
Of course there was the man on the side of the freeway that one night, holding a cardboard sign and his face ravaged, wrecked, a mask of carved lines and howling eyes.
Of course I pulled away from him.
Of course when I looked in the rearview mirror, there wasn’t a man there at all.
“My brain is like a bad neighborhood,” certain recovering alcoholics will tell you. “There’s some places where it’s not safe to go alone.”
I imagine the brain to be a roadmap of interlocking highways, tunnels and canals and yellow-ribboned interstates that connect different cities: ventral tegmental, substantia nigra, basal ganglia. Little cars drive along these highways, cars headed to these cities carrying messages, information, goods. The most driven cars get road-worn. The most driven roads get rutted. The most visited cities get swollen, overpopulated, polluted.
But you can learn how to highjack it. You can get into different cars—pethidine, benzodiazepine, ketamine, methamphetamine. You can go on a road trip inside your own brain, be a little tourist inside yourself.
The trick is not breaking down.
The trick is getting back.
The trick is staying back.
It can be a kind of game you play. When you feel the flapping, the call of the open road. When you feel the dark geographies inside yourself and you need to touch them.
There are other cars, other methods. You can sleep too little or eat too little. You can get too anemic. You can travel to a country where you think drinking boiled tap water is safe, and you can spend days in the bathroom, until you’re vacant and pale and the edges of everything crinkle a little. You can walk the streets until you’re dizzy from dehydration. You can waver on the edge.
You can move to a place where you can’t get your anti-depressants, so you decide to go off your anti-depressants and it’s like a car broke down inside you, stranded you on the side of the road and you can’t get back. You can find yourself sobbing on your bedroom floor at 2pm in your bathrobe, under the asthmatic wheeze of the air-conditioner.
You can go to a quiet place, dark place, a bad place.
You can press your thumbs into your eyes. You can find a light and concentrate on it, grow it brighter. You can pull a jacket over your head and you can curl your knees up and you can leave this place, this body, this skin you’ve been trapped in.
The tourists will mill around—the faces of the people you love—but you will be a faraway thing, another country. You will be riding in a car, on the passenger side with a little shadow man driving. You will have the window down and the dark against your cheek.
You can travel the uncharted territory inside yourself, watch as it expands, stretches out, reaches into the night where the only light is the headlights, devouring the road as it drives you deeper.
As you ride and you ride.
Of course, the car doesn’t really matter. And the driver doesn’t either. The road is the same.
The boy in summer: gone
The voice from Alcatraz: gone
The poet and the alcoholic and the writer: gone
The girl I was in the pulsing bedroom: gone
The little men: mostly gone
Me: half-gone, an expat in my own body, a tourist in my own city.