The first time was the strangest time—out in the desert with a kid named Buddy, no idea that the weed he had lifted off of his father was tainted—everything going all amber and sideways, time slowing to a stumble. From that moment onward, thousands upon thousands of dollars spent trying to replicate that feeling of being under the spell of something incomprehensible, something like floating in time without a care or notion that the world outside even existed any longer.
The scourge of the 1970s drug culture. The subject of After School Specials and urban tales that spoke of kids jumping out of windows or thugs fighting off twenty police with their bare hands even after being riddled with bullets. PCP. Originally synthesized for use as an anesthetic but shelved due to the all-too-often psychotic reaction it created. Relegated to use as an animal tranquilizer. Angel Dust. The drug mentioned alongside biker crank and acid loaded with rat poison as the shit young people wading into the drug pool should avoid—the deep end where one could easily drown and come out the other side as a shell of their former self, rattled and straight-jacketed in a sanitarium to ride out the days and the hallucinations.
I crawled into my own drug world in the mid-1980s. Boredom and punk rock led me to the gate and a feeling of belonging and the excitement of exploration pushed me right on through. I was a traveler without a destination, possessed with the idea in my hormone-riddled brain that I could possibly find a reprieve from my station in life through the supposed expansion of my mind and my experiences. While other kids my age were concerned with hooking up and exploring their budding sexual selves, I was more keen on getting as high as I could, for as cheap as I could, for as long as I could.
Marijuana was in abundant supply. Every kid I knew was either smoking it or had access to it. Cocaine was a novelty drug, the pepper used to spice up parties by the rich kids and preps, with access limited in the world I was a part of. LSD was around, but it didn’t interest me in the least—I was terrified of it and it held nothing for me other than the fear that the world I already saw would be wiped away and replaced with some other thing.
Dust was whispered about. Whenever kids would go missing for a few days, the rumor machine would say they’d been dusted and lost their mind, their parents locking them away until whatever magic potion a shrink could administer removed the evil from their visions. We were always told never to buy weed from a Cholo, because they loved dust so much they smothered their pot in it.
Everyone knew to stay away from it, yet after that first taste, that first dip into a lake of strange—I wanted nothing else.
Buddy was a Hesher. He wore knee-high moccasin boots and cut-up Krokus shirts to school. He rode a dirt bike. He had long brown hair that hung in front of his face. On a school trip to a water park, I watched him take a girl, Brandi, by the hand to a secluded corner. When I walked around the corner to see if maybe they were smoking a joint, all I saw was Buddy with his face mashed onto one of Brandi’s breasts, which was pulled free from her bikini top. Later on, during the bus ride back to our school, I asked him if he liked Brandi, because I had been crushing on her for half of the school year.
“Nah. I just wanted to get some tit.”
This was the first time I’d ever heard it put this way, and for the rest of my life whenever I found myself in the position of putting my mouth on an exposed breast, I heard Buddy’s voice in my head, half-laughing and saying—“finally got you some tit, dude.”
Buddy was a cosmonaut to me. His parents were divorced and he lived with his biker father. He was one of those kids who had complete freedom. He told all of us a story about how his father made him sleep with one of the biker chicks he knew, so he would get it over with and lose his cherry. He was smart in school, but acted like he didn’t give a fuck. All of his work got turned in on time, and he got good grades. He also used to sneak off between classes to get high—smoking joints or huffing glue or drinking vodka he’d stashed in his locker. Buddy gave me shit for having a skateboard and for liking punk rock. He hated Black Flag, said they were noise and bullshit. He was as outside as I was, just in his own way. Buddy was like any Matt Dillon character from any movie made in the early 1980s, in 3-D and with a constant cloud of smoke in his wake.
Describing to people what the effects of certain drugs are like is a very difficult thing. Drugs react unpredictably for many people. Cocaine never made me wired or jittery like everyone else—it made me hyper-focused and steely. Marijuana made me all grabby and loopy, like a marshmallow peep that just wanted to hug on everyone and laugh, but at the same time it also made me focus inward on other things going on in my brain. Alcohol made me aggressive and predatory but also very self-conscious and emotional. Crystal methamphetamine turned me into a fucking psychotic and blathering monstrosity, ready to run through the streets until my feet were bloodied and my head was concave.
Angel dust, however, made me some other thing. Angel dust was like being dropped into a movie without a script or direction and being expected to not only nail your lines, but cruise through them like you’d rehearsed them from the moment you were born. The physical became the un-physical. The real became the ethereal. Like stepping out of your front door into a pool of warm water full of imaginary piranha.
I cannot remember if I gave Buddy my phone number or not, but he was on the other end of the phone, talking into my ear.
“Sean. Man. I’m fucking bored and stole some dope off my dad. Wanna go ride out into the desert and get stoned?”
“Yeah, that sounds cool. Where do you want to meet?”
“I’ll just meet you at the school. See you in 15 minutes.”
Dial tone. Quick run into my room to change out of my shorts into a pair of faded 501s. Out into the garage to grab my bike and away I go, stoked to hang out with Buddy and smoke pot and hear him tell me some tales about his foreign-as-fuck life. I wanted him to tell me more about Brandi and her tits. I wanted to hear about his dad and his biker pals. I wanted to hear about how he stole the pot from his dad. I just wanted to hang out with my cosmonaut, to maybe sponge some cool off of him, to adjust my walk a little like his, to gather some of his don’t-give-a-fuck energy for myself.
We rode out pretty far—beyond the new housing developments that were going into the desert, beyond the washes and arroyo. Buddy knew of a spot that was almost like a campsite, and when we got there it was easy to see it was a local hangout for older Hesher kids—branches arranged as benches around a fire pit, trenches dug around it to protect it from rain water, shrubbery placed in a semi-circle to block it from view of the developers and construction crews. The ground was littered with empty Marlboro packs and beer cans. Condom wrappers and cigarette butts stomped into the desert floor. All of the surrounding saguaro riddled with buckshot holes. There were empty shells on the ground.
Buddy pulled a little device out of his pocket that looked like a bullet with a rubber nipple on the end of it. He laughed that weird and raspy laugh that every outsider kid had—half chuckle, half grunt with a little puberty-inflected Muttley wheeze thrown into the mix. I asked him what the thing was in his hand, and he called it a “sneak-a-toke.”
“I stole this from my dad, too.”
Buddy held the sneak-a-toke to his mouth and fired up a lighter. Immediately the air in front of him became thick with musk and smoke. He took three huge pulls and then handed it to me.
“Make sure you hold it in as long as you can—you’ll get way higher that way.”
I’d smoked pot plenty of times at this point in my life, so the taste was immediately different and alarming—instead of sweet and almost-pungent, it tasted metallic, rusty. Having it inside of me, it burned and burned and my eyes felt like they were tearing up with molten earth. I kept on with it, though. The last thing in the world I wanted was for my cosmonaut to find me a pussy, so I took a couple of more tokes and held it in as long as I could.
There is an urban legend that the first time you smoke marijuana, you don’t really get high because your mind has to recognize the chemical reaction in some way. There are other legends and folk tales about how it isn’t the weed that gets you off, it’s the cigarette you smoke immediately after.
The former never happened to me. I was high as soon as I got high. The latter, however, started to happen a lot. The post-reefer smoke was a part of the ritual, the seal on the high ideal.
When PCP is involved, however, the world goes sideways in a slow drawl.
Buddy’s laugh is amplified and it echoes. The sky—which was nearing dusk and purple—is now a scorching amber shade. The Hesher pit feels like quicksand under my feet. My hands are muddied catcher’s mitts in front of my face, dragged-out like time-lapse photography. My cigarette tastes blue. Buddy is laughing and whooping and dancing up and down in a circle. I keep shifting my weight from foot to foot but feel unstable, as if I can teeter over at any second, facedown into the quicksand.
“Fuckin’ good weeeeeeeeeeeed, man!”
Buddy is shouting now, his voice bouncing to and fro in front of us, his words like neon after sitting in the pitch black.
“Buddy, I don’t feel right. I feel really fucked up.”
“You’ll be fine. I promise. Let’s go ride to the store and get some sodas and shit.”
I try to protest but my mouth won’t work. I can hear the desert breathing in and out around me. I can feel the saguaro mocking us. I try to drop my cigarette and stomp it out, but when I drop it, it just disappears like it never was. Buddy is already on his bike, rambling through the Hesher pit, jumping over the branches as benches and sliding through the quicksand, making a sound that hurts my skull.
I am now on my bike, following Buddy through the desert. He’s yelling and whooping it up and my brain feels like it is rattling around in my skull, each bump an earthquake, each tree branch a whip. I am trying to keep up with him, but he is powering through and all I can really see is the cloud of him that drags behind, a ghost for a moment, and then I watch him shoot out into my view again, hair flying behind him and laughter oozing out of his face.
Up ahead I see the construction sites and know that we are closer to the neighborhood. The earth movers look like giant yellow dinosaurs, the sheetrock stacked up like monoliths. Framing comes into view and the smell of wood that has been baking under the Arizona sun fills my nostrils, almost blotting out the rusty smell from the weed we’d smoked. Buddy skids to a stop in front of one of the almost-completed homes, picks up a rock and hurls it through the front window, sending glass shrieking through the air. He picks up another one and throws it through the windshield of one of the earth movers, the rock making an awful and sickening clanging as it bounces around in the fuselage. I want no part of this, so I keep riding toward the street. In my mind, I have every intention of riding right into my garage and running through my house to my room, to stay hidden and ride out whatever terrible thing is in my body, infecting my mind.
This is not what happens next, though.
I am standing in the middle of a Basha’s grocery store, with a fistful of Ding-Dongs in my mouth. There is chocolate smeared all over my face and hands, the box torn open on the floor at my feet, half of the silver wrappers in my mouth, being ground up with the confectionary madness I am trying to consume. There is a woman standing five feet away, shaking her head at me and mumbling quietly, but I can hear her as clear as can be—“So disrespectful. Punk kids. Terrible.”
Buddy is standing twenty feet away, trying to shove a bottle of vodka into his pants. He keeps yelling “YOU DIRTY RATS!” as other shoppers look at him in horror, too.
We are monsters.
One of the managers comes over and starts talking to me in gruff tones, but all I hear is a hiss. He reaches out to touch my arm and when his hand touches my skin I scream, sending chocolate and silver flying from my mouth all over the front of him. I watch Buddy grab a bigger bottle of vodka and take off running toward the door. The manager is yelling at me now, his words coming into focus like waking from a dream.
“I know your mother, Sean Doyle! This is not acceptable behavior from you, do you understand me? I am going to call the police! You need to pay for this. Do you have any money?”
I am paralyzed. My mouth still tastes rusty and acrid, even with the chocolate. I can smell his stink in front of me, sweat and fear and disgust. I see a crowd of women that know my mother gathering around us. I hear mumbles of “that’s Susan’s boy,” and “I wonder if she knows he’s on drugs?” and my impulse is to scream again, but instead I spit out whatever is left in my mouth at the manager and shove him as hard as I can. He falls backward into a display for something and I take off for the door, the squeal of my sneakers on the floor deafening and everything is like trying to swim with no arms—the lookers-on trying to step in front of me to stop my escape, the other employees trying to rush at me to waylay my exit, crashing into shopping carts and sending their contents into my path, the manager getting upright and screaming and cursing my name.
The route to the exit doors felt like it took an eternity. The moment I was through them, the air felt cooler and there was Buddy—already astride his bike with mine steadied by his hand, ready for us to bolt. As soon as my ass hit my seat all the sound behind me disappeared and all the light went dark and misty. Rushing through the parking lot on our bikes, we’re wind and we’re free, cutting onto the street and making the next left onto a residential street.
We pump and ride through a few more turns deeper into the neighborhood. There is no sound other than our bikes cranking and our wheels rushing across the pavement. Buddy pulls into a driveway and I follow him, stopping abruptly and kind of crashing into him. We’re both out of breath and laughing.
“Does that dick really know your mother, dude?”
Buddy reaches into his pants to pull out the bottle of vodka, but pulls back a bloody hand. I look at his leg and his entire pant leg is soaking through with blood, running down onto the top of his sneaker. I don’t make a sound. Buddy shrugs.
“I guess I’m fucked, too. I’m gonna go home and clean this up or else my dad will kick my ass.”
“You gonna be okay, Buddy?”
“Shit yeah, man. I’ll pour peroxide on it. I’m not a fucking pussy.”
Buddy jumps on his bike and takes off. I stand and watch him, pumping and pedaling down the street before he takes a turn and disappears. I look up at the streetlights—every single one of them is shrouded in a halo. My tongue feels huge and dirty. I can smell myself. The acrid taste in my nose is still there, pulsating and making me nauseous. I start to ride toward my house. It’s dark and the halos make everything uncomfortable. I don’t have far to go, but every movement of my body is slowed and amplified.
I see some headlights coming my way and I know to slow down and move over to the side of the street, to not get in the way of a machine.
I ride toward the lights, their glow like a tractor beam. I know I need to move over but I just cannot help but keep moving in the direction I am moving. I can see a shape behind the wheel. My eyes feel heavy. My legs swell with burn and ache. The glow gets bigger, warmer. I am right on top of them now, and the thud I hear is me, riding right into the front of the car. I hit the pavement hard and my head bounces off of it. I can feel my ankle caught in the chain of my bike. I hear the engine of the machine, turning. I feel hands on my body and the pavement being moved underneath me, abrasive. I hear the sound of my bike being tossed onto the sidewalk next to me. I hear murmurs and whispers. My eyes will not open. The murmurs and whispers are voices I know, voices I’m used to. I force my eyes open and upward. The glow is blinding but I can make out a shape standing over me.
I wake up the next morning in my bed. My teeth hurt and my legs are sore and rigid. I look at my hands and they look distorted. I look at the mirror and all I can see is a mop of hair and acne and eyes that are trying to tell me something I need to know.
I am still high.
I try to make my way out into the kitchen to drink something, to get this awful and scalding feeling out of my throat. There are scrapes on my legs, fresh wounds. My arms have scratches on them from the Palo Verde trees in the desert. Walking down the hall I have to reach for the wall to steady myself; my legs are wobbly. My head throbs and everything I see looks like I am wearing sunglasses indoors while looking through a screen door.
Nobody is home. Even the silence hurts. Opening the refrigerator and pouring orange juice into a glass feels like moving bricks. As soon as the juice hits my throat it feels like hydrochloric acid, scorching away at tissue. I take a panicked breath and then begin to choke on the juice, putting my hands on the counter to steady myself. That’s when I see the note.
We need to talk. Please call me at work when you wake up.
I stare at the note. The words move around on the page, my mother’s handwriting slithering. I feel like I am going to puke, so I put my head in the sink. As soon as I start to wretch, the phone starts to rattle and ring. I stare at it. I know it is probably my mother. It has to be her. I do not want to answer it but we do not have an answering machine so it rings and rattles and rings—every time sending painful and delayed echoes deeper into my skull.
I pick it up and hold it to my ear.
“Sean? Dude, I am so sorry. You okay?”
“Yeah, I think so.”
“My dad found out I stole that dope from him because I passed out on the kitchen floor trying to clean out the glass from my leg.”
“Fuck. My mom left me a note to call her. I’m fucked, too.”
“Sean? That weed was dusted, dude. I’m so sorry.”
“What? Is that why I’m still high right now?”
“Yeah, dude. You’re probably going to feel fucked up for a few days. My dad is so pissed.”
“Fuck, Buddy. What should I do?”
“My dad gave me some blue pills this morning—Valium or helium or something. They helped a lot. He took my bike away. Told me I have to stay locked up in the house for a week. He went to work, so Brandi is gonna come over and hang out.”
“I think I’m just gonna go back to sleep, dude. Have fun with Brandi. Sorry your dad locked you up.”
“Fuck yeah, man. Be cool, Sean.”
When my mother gets home from work that afternoon, she doesn’t seem too upset. She doesn’t ask me why I hadn’t called her—instead she waits for a little while and then comes and knocks on my door and starts speaking softly through it. She asks me if I am feeling better. She tells me that the VanKlaverns—parents of a kid I went to school with—had brought me home the night before after hitting me with their car. They told her I was hysterical and out of it and kept on calling Mr. VanKlavern “dad.” She tells me that she received a concerned call from some other kid’s mother about my behavior in the grocery store. She tells me she isn’t angry with me, but she is concerned that I am running around like a hooligan and leaving a bad impression on people. Then she leaves me alone.
I am on the floor near the door. I listen as her feet leave ripples in the carpet as she walks away.
I am scared.
Three days later I am still high and on the back of an older friend’s scooter on the way to see my psychologist to piss in a cup so we can test my piss and find out what the fuck is in my body and brain. I am terrified that I am going to become one of those urban legends. I am terrified that I will never come down and this will be the way I feel for the rest of my life. I am fourteen years old.
My psychologist grins at me and puts his arm around me when I walk through the door to his office. We go into the bathroom and he hands me a specimen cup. He turns on the faucet for me and then closes the door behind him. I pull myself out of my pants and try to piss, but nothing is happening. The walls are moving. I catch my profile in the mirror and shudder. I look terrible. My eyes are sullen and my face has broken out even worse than usual. I run my hand under the warm water from the spout and feel the first sensation of piss, so I position myself over the toilet and start to fill the specimen cup.
My piss is bright orange. It smells terrible as it fills the cup. Almost to the top, I set it on the side of the sink and continue to piss into the toilet. I feel light-headed, so I try to stop mid-stream and I sit down. When I finish, I take a deep breath and get dizzy from the smell again. I stand up a little too quickly and everything goes wobbly again and I end up on the floor in my psychologist’s bathroom with my dick in my hand. He comes in and puts the lid on the specimen cup and then puts it into a plastic bag. Then he reaches down and helps me up.
The moment I am upright, I feel different. Better. As if by pissing, the poison has left me. I no longer see differently. The walls are what they have always been. My hands do not feel clammy or heavy. I can breathe without seeing little black flecks in my vision. My psychologist gives me a hug and tells me everything is going to be okay, and then I go outside and get on the back of my friend’s scooter and we head back toward my home.
One would think that after such an experience at fourteen years old, the experience would have been harrowing enough to deter someone from trying to replicate it.
One would think.
Over the next few years I would do anything I could to find dusted weed. I would walk right up to groups of Cholos or bikers and call it out to them, hoping they would have it or sell it to me. I would wait to hear rumors of some kid flipping his shit and then I would find that kid and grill him about where he got his shit from, who I needed to contact, how he could hook me up with the stuff. So often when hunting for it I would find myself shunned, cast out by the outcasts for wanting something that terrified so many. Once, years later and after serving in the military and supposedly becoming a grown-ass man, I was almost arrested for asking an undercover police officer in Nogales, Mexico, if he knew where I could “get wet.” Instead of arresting me the officer forced me to sit in a holding cell with all of the local drunks for two hours, surrounded by piss and shit and vomit, which was more than enough time for me to get my mind right and realize I was a little bit obsessed with something that I could do worse for leaving behind.
But when I did manage to get it?
It was a rare find, and it was never quite like that first time, slipping in and out of a dream.
Sean H. Doyle