Posted on 14 April 2009.
The first time I got high, I smoked two bowls in the tennis court box with an RA from another building. I was freezing my balls off and coughing like I had swallowed an animal, but damned if I wasn’t going to finish what I started. It was fall quarter of my freshman year and I wasn’t going to finish the final projects for two of my three classes because I had been spent most of my Thanksgiving break visiting my dad in the hospital where he had been dangerously septic from having his entire colon removed that his sister (and my favorite aunt) Rachel had flown out from Missouri “just in case.”
Some back story is needed to understand the hows and whys of my choice to get as high as I could. On Thanksgiving Eve, as I was getting a ride home from a handsome friend in one of the worst snows I have ever seen, my mom was returning from the hospital when she was knocked off the highway by a well-dressed and wasted doctor, sending our 15-year-old Dodge truck straight into the woods. She hit a tree or two, but this being a time before the auto industry flat-lined, the Dodge behaved like a real champ. Built like a tank and inherited from my electrician grandfather, whose Red Man tobacco scent still sweated off the leather seats, the truck was still drivable after the accident, while the drunk doctor’s car had to be towed away. My mother, while physically intact, decided that enough bad luck was enough, and for the rest of the bad winter weather drives to the hospital, she set the cruise control for 45 and left her hazard lights blinking like a neurotic twitch.
He knew life could really suck, but he also knew that sometimes, you don’t need sympathy in response. You need to get fucked up. This was his calling, to assist others in the art of not giving a shit, and he did it well.
Once we finally got to the hospital, I saw my dad for the first time since the surgery. He had lost about 60 pounds in the past weeks, leaving 140 pounds of muscle and grey skin on his 6â€™ frame. His large eyes and strong nose were the most recognizable features left, and the way they stood on his cavernous face made him look like a concentration camp victim I had seen photos of in a high school textbook. The hardest sight for me, however, was his hair: we had had the same thick brown locks all my life, but now his was dull and falling out in limp gobs. That seemed to break some connection between us, separating my life from his in a way I could not comprehend. It terrified me nearly as much as his hallucinations, brought about the poison in his blood and the fever and meds raging inside. I know that someday, if life goes as best as it can, my parents will eventually return to a childlike state, with their bodies betraying them, but I’m hoping that will not happen until I’m nearly old enough to join them in dementia (we’re only about 20 years apart, so this isn’t as unlikely as it seems). At this point, my dad was 39.
So, we skip to the day I smoke for the first time, my last day on campus before winter break. I’m absolutely miserable. Most of my friends have left or are studying for exams. I was so behind in my work from the little I did over Thanksgiving that there isn’t even a chance I’ll finish in time. Nor do I want to. I can’t focus on anything except my feelings of guilt over not being home, not helping my mom take care of my five younger siblings. The guilt was complicated; I ached to be there, but I also dreaded it: I didn’t want to step in as a parent while I watched one of mine fight not to die. I want nothing but to get really, horribly drunk, but my mom was coming to pick me up around 9 the next morning to go straight to the hospital, and I didn’t like the idea of dealing with a hangover or the trouble that would be sure to follow: my mother, unfortunately, has a nose like a rabid hound, able to sniff out her children’s deeds no matter how they tried to hide. By eleven or so, I had listened to every cover of “Across the Universe” I could find, my favorite being the one sung by Fiona Apple. I had to do something, something mildly self-destructive, or I’d absolutely lose it. So I called Tom.
A year older than me, Tom was notorious for the quantity and quality of the weed he smoked, and less well known for his dealings. He was also a lunatic, but that sort of presence appealed to me at this point in my life. Tom was on duty that night, but this late in finals week, his dorm was nearly empty of students. “If you want to, sure” was his response to my self-conscious request to get high. Minutes later, I was bundled up and walking to his room. Tom had heavy lidded eyes not unlike those of a lizard, and they were already a little red when he opened his door. On the walk to the tennis court, he listened to me talk about my dad and my stress, giving responses with the emotional range of a marble statue. Tom genuinely didn’t care, but not in a mean way. He knew life could really suck, but he also knew that sometimes, you don’t need sympathy in response. You need to get fucked up. This was his calling, to assist others in the art of not giving a shit, and he did it well.
The actual act took place in a corner of the tennis box, protected a little from the harsh wind and authoritative eyes. I coughed so much that Tom got nervous, afraid my hacking was going to attract security. Little did I know that the paranoia had already set in. The weed clawed down my virginal throat, not at all easy or smooth. But I liked the smell; sweet and heady and giving me a surprising comfort. For a minute or two, I felt nothing, with as grim a soul as I had begun this mission. On our walk back, however, the pot hit me like a cold bucket of water. I could feel it flood my whole body, from my core to my extremities, the best and worst adrenaline I have ever had. In the orange glow of the light poles around campus, everything abruptly elongated to the point of horror: the trees, the shadows, my own legs and steps. “I don’t know if I like this at all,” I said. I asked Tom to take my hand. Resigned, he did.
I don’t know what I was expecting getting high to feel like. I know what I was hoping for: a drunk buzz without the hangover or the calories. Alcohol gives me a complete escape from my head, allowing me to relax without losing all control (usually). Pot put me right back in, with the additional party favors of paranoia, mild hallucinations and a thrilling yet terrible body high. Remember, this was my first time smoking ever, so my little self had zero tolerance for anything. Looking back, I feel very fervent thanks to Tom for not just putting me outside or sending me back to my room to trip out alone. Babysitting someone who is high for the first time is no picnic, but Tom was a pro, due probably to his disposition of supreme detachment. He set me down in his bed to watch The Lion King, and patiently listened to me narrate to him each and every thought that zipped through my mind, each and every symptom of being baked I fixated on. Tom even got me a glass of water when I was too scared to go in the bathroom and get it myself because I was sure that if I looked in the mirror, I wouldn’t recognize myself.
Or, I’d see a werewolf.
Somewhere between “Hakuna Matata” and “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” I began to relax and enjoy myself. But only for short spurts of time, when I managed to forget how high I was. Most of the night was spent with my head in Tomâ€™s smelly armpit counting my heartbeats and thinking about electricity and all the blood in my body and what my mom would say if she knew what I was doing the night before she picked me up. Around seven or so in the morning, I woke up with my face still buried in Tomâ€™s body. Exhausted, I walked back to my dorm to pack and eat some breakfast only to discover that I was still kinda stoned. So much for no hangover. I didn’t properly sober up until five or so that day.
After that, I earnestly swore that I would never smoke again. I underestimated the latent perfectionism in my own personality. You see, like any overachieving and competitive K College kid, if I don’t do something right the first time, I work on it until I’m at least as good as everybody else, if not outstandingly better. It took a few more tries, but eventually, I learned that I was not, in fact, going to be high forever, even if it felt like it at first. By sophomore spring, I could smoke with the best of them, and did. Weed was a “gateway drug” for me, but not in the way one might think. It was the first major choice I made in the beginning of my very bumpy transition into adulthood. As I child, I absorbed everything my parents, my teachers, and my church (back when I went to good ol’ catechism) told me, believing it to be true and in my very best interest, which was usually the case. But as a growing young adult, in order to become my true self, I had to test the world out on my own. Parents (and DARE) can give all the love and lectures they have in them, but in the end, experience is really the best teacher, if the most brutal. Smoking and enjoying the occasional joint has not turned me into “your coked-out, alcoholic, good-for-nothing Uncle Mike, who coulda been somebody” but now sits in Romeo, Michigan collecting old bicycles and pigeons (around 300 of each), just like masturbating has not made my palms hairy or led God to strike me with leprosy of the privates (thanks Catholic Church!). I’ve done some things I shouldn’t and skipped some things I should’ve, and I’m still here, ready to graduate and face my uncertain future. And my dad is still here too, kayaking and teaching special education and making too many jokes about balls. I guess everything is as it should be, after all.