Rescue From Oblivion

Illustration by Jordin Isip

The earth was warm. Warm and brown and living, patched threadbare beneath the halogen lights in strips of dirt and grass. It was a hot night in Philadelphia, the end of August 1980, and the acid was just coming on. Already, I could sense trouble looming, a metallic taste in the back of my throat. So when the earth began to oscillate slightly, like a hand beckoning me closer, I did what came naturally: I lay down.

At first, no one seemed to notice. I was with five or six people, and as they stood together in a ragged circle, I retreated to the soft caress of the earth. Then, just as I was feeling somewhat settled, one of the others looked my way. His name was Ethan, and in that moment — hot, sweaty, face bright red and eyes like saucers — he resembled no one so much as the devil himself. It was Ethan who had scored the acid, and Ethan who, not 10 minutes earlier, had appeared out of nowhere with the Thai stick that had kicked things into overdrive. “Look at this guy,” he said, stalking toward me, teeth as sharp and shiny as a predator’s. “Better be careful. You don’t want to get stuck.”

His comment was like an animal burrowing at the edge of my consciousness, digging through the back of my head. Briefly, I tried to push it away, but even as I did, my limbs grew heavy, as if they were sinking; the dirt turned wet and viscous, and I could sense myself going down. I forced a grin and pulled myself upright, but as I stood, I felt like I had left half of my body in the earth, as if, were I to look down, I would see not dust and grass but hair and blood and sinew festering in loosely human form. I took another deep breath, but it was too late. The air caught in my chest in a small, tight ball of panic, and I knew it was only a matter of time before it expanded to my brain.

What was I doing here? Only three days earlier, I had arrived at the University of Pennsylvania as an incoming freshman, and, in every way that mattered, I was all alone. Even the people I was with were new acquaintances, although one, Culp, I knew vaguely from high school. Up to now, that had seemed a kind of bond. Yet standing in the Upper Quad, I didn’t feel a bond with anyone, and what was worse, it was my own fault. I had tripped a fair amount over the last few years, and I understood it was an unpredictable process; the drug could turn on you. Once, I’d watched my face melt in a mirror, going through the cycle of aging, from adolescence to adulthood to decrepitude, in a few seconds. Another time, the transition from day to evening had been enough to turn a good trip melancholy for no reason I could comprehend. This was part of the rush, of course, the idea that, for eight or 10 or 12 hours, I would give myself over to something far beyond my control. But there were situations you should stay away from, and tripping with a bunch of strangers was the most basic one.

By now, everything was oscillating, including the members of our group, who were breaking off and spinning into other orbits like human shards. Devil Ethan disappeared, and shortly thereafter, Culp suggested we all head up to his room. For the brief time I’d been in Philadelphia, Culp’s room had been my constant hangout, and I felt comfortable there, among the institutional furniture, listening to Procol Harum or the Talking Heads. Tonight, though, things began to close in on me as soon as we got upstairs. There was this intense vibrato, like the flutter of a million butterfly wings, and a sensation I can only describe as nausea, if nausea can start inside your head. I stood up, sat down, tried to find a handle, but reality had taken on the appearance of a flipbook, all herky-jerky, disconnected motion. The dread pulsed through me with the beat of my own blood.

“Culp.” I heard my voice before I realized I was speaking, before I could make the association to thought. The word floated in the room like a dialogue balloon, a solid shape of sound. “Culp,” I said again, and again it lingered in the air. I had the momentary idea that I might fill the room with words if I could only keep on talking, but before I had a chance to test the hypothesis, Culp sat down. His eyes glittered like plastic disks behind his John Lennon glasses, and in that instant, I knew what needed to be done.

“Listen,” I told him, very rational, very calm. “You have to take me to the hospital. I need a shot of Thorazine.”

Culp looked at me for a moment. Then, patiently, he explained why the hospital was a bad idea. “They’re not going to let you walk out of there,” he said. “They’re going to keep you overnight.”

No, I argued, that wouldn’t happen. How could it? I was fine. Anyway, my father was a doctor, and I knew how to deal with hospitals. I’d say I’d taken too much acid, someone would give me the Thorazine, and I’d be on my way. I just needed him to walk with me because I didn’t think I could make it on my own.

I don’t know how long we sat there, but Culp was persuasive. Finally, I decided against the hospital, and started to feel a little calmer, a little more connected to the world. I got up, walked around, interacted; I came down from the terror, if not the high. I listened to The White Album for six straight hours.

In the morning, I felt like I’d been saved from something, but it wasn’t until a year or two later that I understood exactly what. My friend Joey Zip had been picked up by the Philadelphia police for lying unresponsive in a row-house doorway, rendered temporarily catatonic by LSD. At the hospital, Joey had been intubated and catheterized, and kept for three days of observation on the psychiatric ward. By then, Culp and I were already best friends, and would continue to be for many years.

During my junior year in high school, I was told by a teacher that drug friendships were invalid because they were built on a fallacious bond. Drugs, he went on, took you away from things that mattered, and whatever they seemed to offer, it was only an illusion. My experience suggests the opposite is sometimes true. It’s been nearly 20 years since I last did hallucinogens, but under their influence, I connected deeply with my buddies, because they were all I had to cleave to in a psychic landscape with no identifiable rules. It didn’t matter that what bound us was a drug experience — or perhaps I should say it mattered all the more. Out on the edge of acid, there’s not a lot to hold on to, no guide wires, none of the reassuring architecture of the self. There’s just your own internal sense of balance, and the people you’re with; set and setting, the acolytes call it, but I prefer the simpler designation trust. And trust is what I found that night in Philadelphia, the very moment I needed it most.