When he opens his second-floor apartment door, he does not reach toward me. His palm is rubbing the top of his head, and his fingers are agitating the heavy air, as if he is already anxious for the marijuana high.
It is our plan. Or his plan. Our final date arranged meticulously: “Come by for a last night together,” he requested. “Get stoned, enjoy crazy pleasure and say goodbye.”
I set my goodbye gift, a tall bottle of his preferred vodka, on his kitchen counter, beside the bag of crumbled brown buds and the disemboweled cigarette he will stuff so that he can smoke, and the block of butter he will infuse so that I can ingest.
I am sure I can swallow pot-buttered toast, but I am afraid to choke on smoke, though I have watched him innumerable times hold nicotine and pot in his lungs in the dusk on his back porch, where he has flown high all alone.
“I’m waiting for legalization, or for a special occasion,” I used to reply to his requests that I join. And then the thought occurred that David, he was the occasion. So on a recent Sunday afternoon with him, for the first time I tried the rise—then took the tumbling, jumbling fall, when my fevered mind lost control of my tangled tongue and I asked him, “Do you see a future for us at all?”
“Probably not, no.”
He removes my arms now from around his sticky shirt and sends me out of his hot kitchen so he can concoct the pot in the pan on his stove. With the buttered bread and jam, he brings me an improvised vodka muddled with blueberry preserves in the cool dark of his porch. My preferred alcohol—a Moscato so sweet that he curls his lips in disdain—he no longer bothers to stock it in his refrigerator for our countless casual dates. Dates that I had somehow hoped would conclude, not in this final goodbye high, but in a toothbrush behind his bathroom mirror, my favorite wine on his patio table.
I prop my feet on its slats, tip back my chair, and whisper the words of the music that he has put on.
“You know this song?” he asks, surprised.
“Of course.” Of course, why can you not see I am as cool as you, as you need, humming folk music and getting high.
“How do musicians do it?” I marvel as we float back inside and I drift to a kitchen chair. “How can they perform or even create this intoxicated? I can’t even remember the sentence you said before last.”
And then we laugh, and he laughs, and I laugh at him laughing. And the room sinks murky and close and something spins us into the front room and hurls us onto the sofa and then thrusts him into my mouth, my body, spread out sweating, spasming, shaking, on the couch, then again on the bed.
Afterward, I lie naked, a straight stiff line right on the mattress edge. “Before we sleep, don’t you want to brush your teeth?” he asks.
But I do not, I cannot move. The thin sheet presses, forces, pinions my legs.
I spring up, point my feet, knees locked, toward the wooden floor. “I can’t move my legs I can’t move my legs,” I gasp. “I can’t walk I can’t walk I can’t walk.”
I am gulping sweltering air and pushing through it to reach the back door. The lock resists, the handle rattles, the screen door sticks. And then I am there.
I sink my bare body to the rough wooden slats of the back porch, with its moon-illuminated rat droppings and windswept mud. I kneel down, rocking with the trees in the night breeze, forward, backward, forward. I flex my fingers, still working, but stiffening slowly, paralyzing.
“I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I need to stay right here.”
He digs a hand under my arm, lifts my limp body partway, drags me back over the threshold, and locks out the cool of the night. Then he pushes me through the oven-thick air of the kitchen and into the black box of the bedroom.
“I can’t lie down,” I say. “Stay up and talk to me. Distract me with happy stories. Maybe stories of your childhood,” I beg.
But he laughs and pulls me to the pillow, and in the swimming shadows I hear instead a mention of Kafka, and I attempt to halt the ominous bedtime story with a palm against his mouth. The other hand flails about, searching in the murk.
Then my eyes are also searching around slowly. Head down, body lifting deliberately up through the humid, swampy dark. “I feel I am dreaming,” I gurgle.
And then all around the black is deepening, and the white light of the streetlight is reaching through the bedroom window and drawing me forward. Here. Come.
I am crawling, struggling against the tangles of the blankets, to the end of the bed, to my end. Then I am rushing toward the vortex of the glass.
“I’m dying,” my voice is warning.
“Well, everyone has to die sometime,” a far-off male voice is comforting, ushering me ahead. “Maybe this is your time.”
An arm pulls me back and forces me down on the bed. I yank away from the clutches and crawl, wobbling, wheezing, down the wood boards of the hall, the linoleum the length of the kitchen. Can I outpace that black death-thing stalking me to the distant, receding brown door? The lock now so high as I reach up, fumbling, the handle so heavy.
At last, the bulk swings open to the night air, and I tumble out onto the deck boards. And then I inhale.
“There’s a weird taste in my nose. There’s a weird taste in my nose,” I report, thrashing my face about, so as to undo the alarm.
“My mouth is so dry. Water. I need water my mouth is so dry,” I clamor, gasping wildly for air.
A glass tumbler of water, sloshing, is placed in my trembling, up-stretching hands. Then removed and set beside me on the floor.
“Enough, you’ve had enough,” David says, and pulls me back from the porch to the kitchen linoleum. “Come sleep it off, come to bed.”
“Just let me stay here ’til it ends,” I beg. “Or food. Make me food to absorb it,” I conjecture, “and make the end come sooner.”
It will end, it has to, I know. After two, maybe three hours. And as I bite a dry corner of toast that he hands me, I peer through the dark to the stove’s glowing electronic green numbers. 1:12 a.m., I note.
“What if I get stuck like this?” I implore him. He laughs his warm, gurgling chuckle. “First-timers always ask that,” he says. “You won’t get stuck.”
But my brain sticks on Christine, my cousin, whose mind fried with acid throughout my childhood, until even after the fire subsided from her system, her thick voice at family gatherings rose up in incoherent mutterings.
I know I am babbling now, too, but I cannot control my words, or my body on the floor by the stove.
1:22 a.m., it says. “It’s only been 10 minutes,” I cry.
“Come to bed, come sleep,” he replies, pulling my forearm toward the bedroom.
“Don’t make me go in there,” I shriek. “I almost died in that room.”
In the living room where he leads me, he piles pillows and couch cushions in the center of the floor for a temporary, less harrowing bed.
I lie down, I rise up. He reaches, restraining, toward me.
“Don’t touch me,” I command and recoil.
“I see what’s happening,” David says.
And I pause, eager finally for an explanation for the hot, swirling confusion.
“You’re afraid of intimacy with me because this is our last night.”
I dismiss his theory. Although how can I know if my body, now animated on its own, is acting on facts that my mind has been trying to conceal.
“No, I feel sick,” I explain.
But in the bright bathroom, where my eyes in the mirror glisten with fire-alarm-red blood, the death-darkness descends again and spirals over me.
“David?” I call out. “David?”
And here he is—the man who has at last decided on my inadequacy, no matter how careful my makeup or hair, how witty my repartee over countless candle-lit tables. He is here at the door, opened to reveal my smeared mascara, disheveled extensions, folded body straining on the toilet seat.
But then, nearer than the shame, the darkness approaches.
“I’m dying,” my voice, rising, warns.
I bolt up, push past him to reach the refuge of the porch floor, where the black death cannot overcome.
“You seem OK,” I say, but maybe the smoking spared him whatever other, foreign poison was laced in the buds, which I absorbed into my stomach, my blood.“I’m dying,” I repeat, gasping, as he leans behind, above me in the frame of the back door.
“I think you should take me to the hospital.”
But how near is the nearest hospital? And before the taxi arrives, I am sure I will expire.
“Let me listen to your heart,” he indulges me. Or is that actual fear I hear in his plan? Then he stands me and presses his ear to my breast, my back, while he wraps me in thick, warm arms, in the embrace that he withheld when he first opened his front door, the care that he has withdrawn since he decided that our connection was only casual.
Abruptly he straightens, steps back. “You’re fine,” he pronounces.
“Maybe this all will stop if I tell you the truth of how I feel,” I murmur dreamily.
“Tell me what?” he inquires.
But even in this fever, I know not to mention love.
“I’m going to bed,” he says.
“Don’t leave me,” I plead. “Tell me stories.”
“No, I can’t stay up all night.”
But I know that, alone, I will have to, to monitor the shadowy dark to detect the imperceptibly darker outline of death. How cruel is consciousness, to know that we will die, I muse to the rustling leaves in the tops of the trees, to the infinitely high expanse of the stars beyond.
Somewhere a gunshot punctures the night. I wait. Another, one more. Later I will learn of the woman targeted in her car only blocks away.
On the sidewalk down below, voices and laughter ring out as two young men, lit by the moon, weave back from some bar, where they got drunk, and likely got high.
The chill, the relaxation—the harmlessness—of this drug cited by everyone, among them my lovers for years and years. Why did they never reference, I wonder, its terror, its death.
Has he died? The bedroom is silent.
“David?” I call. “David?”
He mutters my name and calls me to him in bed.
No, not where death spiraled and almost consumed me. And then I see it open, swirl, descend again. No one has ever died of marijuana, I repeat to myself some factoid David once cited to proselytize. I rock forward, clutching my knees, pulsing my fingers against the impending paralysis.
“David?” I call.
But have I correctly stated his name? Is he Gary, my first love? Or Nathan, my brother? Or is he my long-ago abuser?
Someone is suddenly rushing, approaching, emerging from the dark of the kitchen, pulling me up, commanding, “This is enough. You must get a grip. Come to bed.”
“OK, OK,” I acquiesce quickly. Then sink back to the floor.
Where by myself I sway in and out of the haze, my self coming back to me, and then slipping back out of my grasp.
A shadow moves on the porch stairs. Then across the wooden slats scurries a huge, gray rat. Harbinger of reality, sobriety.
I scurry backward to the kitchen, bolt the heavy back door between us, fall into a kitchen chair in the breeze of the window screen.
David calls out to me.
“Yes, I am here,” I reply, my voice steady, lower, as I follow the pale gray of the dawn creeping over the stars and the trees, the porch and the kitchen floor.
Across the linoleum I tiptoe, and creep into the placid light of the bedroom, then curl onto the cool empty half of the bed.
“There she is,” David murmurs. At last.
Though later he will tell me he actually contemplated the hospital. Where I will go, a week after, when the dark spiral returns in a public bathroom stall, and I am sure the poison is still churning through my bowels and beginning to pump up through the blood to arrest my heart. In the taxi to the emergency room, I will double over and roll down the window and struggle for hot, sticky air, while I open my phone to photos of him, now gone forever, as if I am calling his name, searching for calm.
And before the half of Clonazepam will be delivered in a small paper cup to my hospital bed, after the doctor will admonish me to avoid marijuana again, he will lean back against the wall and pause: “Can I ask why after all these years, at your age, you decided to try it now?”
And I will look down at the absurd pattern of squiggles printed onto the fabric of my patient gown and answer, “I was trying to keep a guy.”
The guy who now reaches toward me, and pulls my body against his in the bed, and wraps one arm tight around my torso, one hand protective on the top of my head.