The Salvia Episode

I conceive of God as a bright laugh in the abyss, in stitches because someone has tripped and made an ass of himself. This image came to me while on Salvia Divinorum. It’s a decent story.

When we learned of Salvia we were excited because it satisfied one of our central criteria in life: “will it make us hallucinate? Good.” That Salvia was also legal was more than just an added bonus, since we are far beyond the age of claiming “youthful ignorance” as a general panacea to all disastrous situations. And also (in case the substance decided to turn on us) the duration of its effects was apparently brief. These facts combined created enough impetus for us to seek some out.

The very first headshop we visited had the sign Purple Sticky Salvia Sold Here! displayed proudly in the window. The shop bells rang as a boy and a girl, both in dark hoodies with their hands shoved deep in the pockets, sidled past us as we entered the narrow world of incense and bulbous, swirling glassware. The Arab behind the counter nodded, unsmiling. The adhaan played from a radio in the background.

We came away with a gram of Salvia in a flat, circular, ridiculous purple tin. When we opened it at home it looked and smelled like dirt.

That was a Monday. We decided to wait until Friday. We are responsible.

All week I sat at my desk studying for an exam in deontic logic while the little purple tin sat staring at me and huge, vicious butterflies with furry wings fluttered within me. I could not help recalling some of my terrifying experiences with LSD, where if I had had the wherewithal I would have preferred death to another instant of excruciating insanity. Had it been a month before when I was studying modal logic, which divides the universe into ‘necessary’, ‘possible’ and ‘impossible’, I might have had the strength to toss the little tin in the trash. But this was deontic logic, which allows the much grayer term ‘permissible’ to infect the world. I had no defenses.

Friday afternoon, before the others returned from work, Ben took it first and I watched. He was also a little apprehensive, but logic failed to save him as well. We went to the basement. He stretched like an athlete, shook out his muscles, sat ceremoniously on the couch, took a deep breath and said, “here we go.” He put the little pipe to his lips and took everything in in one drag. Then he let out an acrid cloud of blue smoke and settled into the couch.

“Well?” I said, impatient.

He gestured for me to wait, glancing quickly to the side as if he had heard something. A look of consternation screwed up his features. Then a look of total confusion. He jumped up, ready to declare something he had already forgotten. Then he looked at me bewildered.

“What?” he said in a panic. I was sitting on the floor. I tried to calm him.

“You’re alright,” I said, “you just . . .”

But he wasn’t listening. He had started laughing and couldn’t keep his balance.

“No!” he cried out joyfully, “I have to see where it ends!” and ran outside onto the patio, looking around as if he had never seen the world before. He started stammering, “it’s not here, it’s elsewhere.” And then he ran back inside and up the stairs with me chasing after him. He yelled, “shoes!” as he went up, so I ran back down, searched high and low, saw them under a table and grabbed his shoes.

When I caught up with him he was sitting on the living room couch, pale and sweating profusely. It was all over.

“That was horrifying,” he said.

I objected: “but you were laughing.”

“Yeah, I know,” he said. “Why do you have my shoes?”

I dropped them and brought him a glass of icewater.

“Thank God it’s as brief as it is,” he said. “I might have had a stroke. I’ve heard that catatonics will freeze in those positions for days out of sheer anxiety, afraid that if they move so much as a hair’s breadth the universe will come crashing down around them.”

“Right,” I said, “but you were running all over the place.”

“Yeah, I know,” he said. He sipped his water quietly, starring at the floor.

“But what was it like?”

He said, from his perspective, it was like the world was split in two, and everything to the right of him was real, but would pass out of existence as it moved left, becoming only a puppet of itself. Apparently I was a puppet. He ran outside, but the sky and trees still suffered from unreality. He ran up the stairs and felt the world to his left was crumbling away.

That was more than enough to make me hold off. I smoked my share of Salvia an hour later.

I sat on the same couch. Across the room was the little coffee table I used as a desk, the wilting pepper plants to either side of it, a fresh cup of tea steaming next to my stack of logic books. Ben sat in a chair in the corner to my left. I took a big drag, held it in, let it out.

At first there was nothing. Then I felt the whole room was rushing backwards like it was the sea hastening to greet a mounting wave. Then the ‘like’ of simile vanished into metaphor which in turn bled into fearsome reality: what massive tide was crashing towards me? I feared all this water was going to break over my head and drown me, so I jumped with a shout to my feet to escape being smashed violently into the shore. Things shifted, disconnected. I was standing in the middle of the room and had no idea why. I was seeing everything through a film of intricate patterns and words that fell just short of comprehension.

For the life of me I could not explain what was happening, although I felt a great urgent need to. Urgency was in fact the the basic component of my being, to the point of anxiety. I was leaving something undone, or I was late for some exact appointment, or I was failing at some important responsibility. But I did not know what it was. I saw Ben slumped in his chair and there wasn’t an ounce of reality to him, like a puppet.

“What am I supposed to be doing?” I asked him. “What did I forget?”

He looked at me blankly: “What?”

I tried to ask again, but all I heard out of my mouth was, “wah-wah-wah-wah-wah!”

If I could not quickly discover my task I was pretty sure I was going to die. Or at the very least be eternally humiliated. In the absence of any certain knowledge it made sense to try everything. I shut off the stereo; closed the windows; arranged the pillows on the couch; picked off the peppers’ dead leaves; put various things in the trash can; straightened the books on the desk; took a deep breath and put my shoes on. But still I felt ill at ease.

All while this pallid puppet in a chair followed me with its eyes, its strange head guided by strings, its mouth fixed in a grin.

Then I saw my greenish tea, steaming in its squat mug on the table, and concluded (very correctly) that I was supposed to be drinking it. Confidently I crossed the room and grabbed it. It was scalding and I cried out, spilling a little. Odd, mechanical laughter clouded Ben the Puppet in his unreal corner. But this just made me more determined, since I was certain only by drinking this tea could I escape the terrible anxiety seething in me. So I brought it, hands stinging, back to the couch and as I sipped it, mouth stinging, I continuously felt as if warm liquid was spilling from my hands all over my legs. But every time I looked I was neat and dry, the tea was still in the cup. I reasoned I must be pissing myself. I would check again and still be dry. Over and over, until slowly the the rhythm of logic grew less syncopated and began falling again on the natural beat.

When the absurdity of holding a scalding tea mug finally occurred to me, I set it down; by then it was over and my hands hurt terribly. My expression must have uncoiled into a look of recognition, for Ben said:

“Are you back?”

“That was horrifying,” I said.

Later that evening, having beers and cigarettes on the patio, John took his turn. He sat very quietly, smoking and smiling, lost in thought. Then at a certain point, heaving a sigh of real enjoyment, he lifted up his triumphant arms for all to see and cried: “Ah ha! I know these hands: they are mine!”

He had a better time of it than Ben or I.


~ by Peter on December 21, 2007.

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