By Jessica Handler
I was in my late twenties, on a road trip with friends, when I flopped into a chair at a music club in New Orleans and had a look around. We were lucky; the club was rocking, and we were already in a highly pleased state from visiting the drive-through daiquiri place. When I caught sight of a trampled baggie trapped under a table leg, I leaned down to examine it, making as if to tie my shoe. The bag had either been hidden for safekeeping or fallen from a stoner’s pocket. If it held a few loose joints, I’d take it. If it were pills, I would take them only if I could identify them. This bag held neither. The bag held a jackpot: leathery, grayish chunks of psilocybin mushrooms. Lucky me. Free drugs. The baggie was in my pocket in a flash. Later that night, the mushrooms met orange juice and a blender, and then my body.
This moment in drug history is more than twenty years old, but it’s one in a sequence that composes a kind of mental flip book for me. There are the “first acid trip” pages, which end with a teenaged me supine beneath the comic book spinner rack at my neighborhood pharmacy, whirling the cosmos of Archie and Weird Adventure above my head while belting out a then-current Three Dog Night hit. I like that sequence; it’s funny and poignant, the stuff of memoir. I’m also fond, in a rueful way, of my memory of origami-style birds fashioned from the cut-off corners of magazine pages. The glossy paper made neat packets to hold just enough cocaine for a few pre-party lines. I’m less affectionate toward the next pages in my flipbook: me licking the empty, unfolded paper triangles, searching the creases for remnants of the numbing thrill.
“We’d have a hard time getting you addicted to anything,” my physician mused during a recent checkup. She’d prescribed a short course of something innocuous, and I’d balked. “I’d rather not,” I’d told her. I wasn’t afraid I’d become dependent: I’d already done my obsessive turns with better drugs, and years had passed since I’d licked, swallowed, or pocketed anything that rated as a Class IV narcotic. I was tired of drugs, prescription or otherwise.
“You’re lucky,” she said.
I grew up sneaking peeks at the Physician’s Desk Reference the way other kids steal a look at the Playboy magazines their fathers believe are safely hidden behind the laundry hamper. The PDR’s color pictures of pills were my idea of erotica: pale pinks, blues, and greens, sweetly side by side or blatantly aggressive in grainy blow-ups. Most of the book’s scientific language escaped me, but I welcomed its atmosphere of danger tinged with hope. My father got a new PDR every year, hardbound and heavier than any of the Martindale-Hubbell law books in his office, and nearly as thick as the dictionary in our den.
He believed he needed them. My two younger sisters were terminally ill with separate diseases; their illnesses were moving targets, and every drug might be a door to redemption. On Sunday afternoons, I went with him to the pharmacy (later the location of that first acid trip) to fill sheaves of prescriptions and buy a carton of his unfiltered cigarettes. Sometime between his first and last trip to the drugstore, my father developed an addiction to amphetamines. Eventually, my mother was knocking on the pharmacy’s glass door before business hours, meeting my sisters’ needs for real medication and filling my father’s illegal scrips. She didn’t know then that he’d had them faked, only that she wanted his rages stilled so that she could mother her daughters in moments of peace.
My friend Suzanne theorizes that people our age don’t do recreational drugs because we no longer have the leisure time to recover like we used to. That Captain-Crunch eating, pajama-wearing indolence of the next day—and even the day after—lives in a spot on our personal timelines when no one needed looking after (those mirrors laid across table tops weren’t tools for self-reflection), and grocery-buying and bill-paying were afterthoughts at best. “We’re afraid we’ll run out of luck,” I agreed. “We’re old enough to know we could die.”
Even when I was young, I knew that luck stuck to people in different ways. Even though my father was an addict (who didn’t buy his drugs on the street, and was therefore, a different, better class of user) he was also, for a while, the executive in charge of an alternative sentencing drug treatment center. The basic algorithm at the center: go to state-sponsored hippie rehab, or go to jail. Junkie teenage runaways only a few years older than I was slept in the center’s bunk beds, washed the spaghetti-crusted dinner dishes, and were encouraged to chime in during “rap sessions” led by social workers. On the few occasions I accompanied my father when he dropped by work on a weekend, I made a beeline to a reasonably clean beanbag chair beside a dirty window. The air smelled like musty old house, incense, and dirty socks. I’d bury my face in a book and try not to breathe.
My father excelled at the complicated handshakes the inmates—earnestly called “family”—bestowed upon him. Some of the older boys in the “family” looked dangerously romantic to me, aloof, and thin as pin-joints. I imagined hanging out with them, impressing them with how much I knew about their twin passions, drugs and rock music. I was eleven. I had no idea what we’d actually do or what their lives were like. Hiding behind my paperback copy of The Exorcist, I stole periodic glances at the wall clock, counting the minutes that became hours until my father and I could go home for dinner.
At home, drugs hummed in my sister Sarah’s nebulizer. The motor made our kitchen smell vaguely of plastic while she coughed through the vapor. Drugs had swollen my sister Susie until her face resembled a wheel of white cheese. Drugs were all around me, close as family, distant as adulthood. Two more PDRs came and went before I gathered pills and pot from my father’s bedroom bureau and made friends in high school: gentler, less-broken versions of the unapproachable treatment-center boys.
My flip book didn’t end in New Orleans. Not too terribly long ago, my husband and I stood in the doorway of a coffee bar in Amsterdam, reading the chalkboard menu. We felt awkward; buying pot in the open in order to smoke it in the open seemed utterly wrong. The prices were suspiciously cheap. Turned out they make it up with the lighters. Inquiring puis-je utiliser votre Zippo? of a French twenty-something at the next table got us smoking. My husband, a soft-spoken, deep thinking man, had told me a raft of funny college anecdotes about pot turning him into a deathly silent, withdrawn shell. “I get really quiet,” Mickey said, drawing out the “really.” I’d stopped smoking pot years before we met, and the harder stuff was long gone from my life. My husband and I had never smoked together.
In the coffee bar, I smoked one joint, delighted that they roll them for you. They box them, too, like my Camel cigarettes of yore. I smoked and talked. I got garrulous. I sang along with the stoner video for “Little Green Bag” playing in a loop on the television in the corner. I lit another. I chatted with the folks at the next table. And Mickey grew quiet. Really quiet.
“Honey, are you okay?” I asked, pretty sure that he wasn’t.
“Honey, do we need to leave?” I had three entire joints left, neatly rolled, in a cute box. The coffee bar was plastered with signs warning me not to leave the premises with marijuana. Our hotel was plastered with reverse messages: bring any marijuana in, and face imprisonment.
My sweet husband moved his head. Not a nod, but a barely perceptible vertical bob.
“Can you stand up?” I asked. Please be able to stand up, I thought, eyeing the vertiginous spiral staircase to street level. Mickey made that same head-gesture and, as if he were emerging from a puddle of glue, rose to his feet.
Un cadeau, I said to the French kid with the Zippo, pointing to the box with my last three joints. Lucky him.
Step by slow step, my husband and I climbed the metal stairs to street level and walked carefully to our hotel, each snow-dusted cobblestone and trolley track a massive obstacle.
When I told Suzanne that we’re old enough to know we might die, I was thinking back to Amsterdam and my history of fearsome chances: a beloved husband rendered mute in a basement coffee shop four thousand miles from home, a reckless young woman churning dubious flora into a blender, a desperate mother negotiating a momentary balance. And what I see now in that mental flipbook are brushes with danger, and a few very lucky people dancing on the edges of something close to hope.
JESSICA HANDLER is the author of Braving the Fire: A Guide to Writing About Grief (St. Martins Press, December 2013.) Her first book, Invisible Sisters: A Memoir (Public Affairs, 2009) is one of the “Twenty Five Books All Georgians Should Read.” Her nonfiction has appeared on NPR, in Tin House, Drunken Boat, Brevity, Newsweek, The Washington Post, and More Magazine. Honors include residencies at the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, a 2010 Emerging Writer Fellowship from The Writers Center, the 2009 Peter Taylor Nonfiction Fellowship, and special mention for a 2008 Pushcart Prize.