by JENNIFER RUSSO
The grass came from a gentle oddity of a person, a man deftly bearded, given to long monologues about music. “Is this your first time?” he asked, and embraced widely in benediction. My child. Sniffing at the mouth of an unlabeled prescription bottle, we clasped hands in childlike anticipation, formed a circle around the remains of birthday cheese and crackers, half-emptied bottles of wine. For the two menthols smoked earlier in the day – lungs clinging to the damp palm of an early winter afternoon – I felt a twinge of guilt. For this twist of green inside orange on the coffee table, we considered nothing except (naively): pipe or paper?
If you smoked in high school, you were confined to a yellow square in the courtyard. The people inside of this square did not exist. If they did, we simply conceded that they could not be smoking anything other than tobacco, a single cigarette no doubt filched from their parents’ pocket-crushed packs. I was twice invited to step inside the square, both times by a girl in my class with a proclivity to arrive at school in slippers. I declined twice, too keen on existing, fonder still of the triangle beyond the yellow square where the smoke wafted, intoxicating those of us who believed ourselves more saintly.
Now, they passed the joint to me – thin, wrinkled, illicit – and I smacked pious lips dry, pinched them to the end of it. Inhale. Hold. Hold. Hold. Cough. Yes? Again? An orange, stabbed with cloves, simmered on the back of the stove. Water whistled in the kettle. The apartment reeked. Nearby, a friend with a face pink like wine made snow angels on the hardwood floor. “Are you with me?” – she wept.
My brother had smoked once, alone in his room, hanging out of his window into a Saturday afternoon. When I knocked on his door, he yelled huskily, too quickly, “I’m burning a candle.”
“Wait, wait,” cautioned the more experienced voice as I begged for another hit, impatiently grounded. I had taken four in the space of fifteen minutes, twice stood up to go relieve myself nervously of tea and judgment. The deepest pleasures are prohibited; the only true saints are martyrs.
Since we firmly believed that smoking marijuana would be an entirely communal experience – not unlike sex, a joining, an instance in which mind, body and spirit collide – we found, with surprise, that rapidly elapsing time and appetite and tension fell like weights, pushing us until we were awkwardly seated or lying on large cushions, half on the floor and half on the sofa, separate. We had not speculated beyond our fabricated truth. I went to the bathroom mirror and inspected, in the dark, whether or not my eyes had closed to slits.
What happens when saints burn? A slice of brain just behind my forehead unpeeled itself, like lazy adhesive, from my skull. As the gray matter between my ears pressed first near the back of my head, then forward to heighten the pressure behind my eyes, my skeleton stiffened further, hung skinny as from a hook in a sleepy biology classroom. A right forearm resting gently on the burgundy leather of the sofa appeared to be detached from the rest of my body. Seated, body down to my knees buried in the recesses of a tired couch, arms resting heavy at my sides, I did not believe that I could move if I wanted to. Below the altitude of scrunched-up sweater sleeves, hair rose curiously in response to a passing draft. Otherwise my hand looked small and white and completely made of marble.
Is this what they mean? – Stoned.
“I can’t move,” I told my friend, voice lowered. She twitched; I took on faith that I was high. Cynicism, which replaces guilt in the brain for pleasures felt in the body, prevents me from believing I truly sense anything. For example: it was not love that I felt at the age of twelve, that soft twitch at the center of myself in the not-quite-gut but not-quite-groin, palms resting on electrified knees, watching a boy’s face cast a man’s shadow on the wall. Truly Drunk, toes dancing bare across spiky grass into a summer evening, would not wonder rationally at the degree of her intoxication. Guilt produces nothing, says my brain, but cynicism produces a sort of false wisdom, a wobbling spirit at the edge of a cliff that believes it knows what it is like to fall.
My head hovered, disembodied. Gravity pulled neatly at the center of my forehead and at the shadows underneath my eyes. I stood up to walk to the kitchen and undid my muscles when I sat back down, movement forgotten. Not unlike (rationally, I sketched similes) drinking really strong tea while sexily hungover on an unchurched Sunday morning. That, and the summer-camp feel of pool water in your ears, drowning out your friends’ shouting and crying and the music on the radio.
If it was the drug that chiseled me out of a corner of the couch, lifelike, then it was the presence of others that confirmed my non-presence, the blank of my curves against the backdrop of the apartment. In the halo of lamplight, I knew that I could remain without life or motion for years. Around me, couples would kiss for good luck; children would drop pennies on my stone toes. Wax dripped poetic from a candle onto the coffee table. Unmoving, my eyes greedily thumbed off a pinch of crusty baguette.
One of my uncles, an alcoholic, golfed. When I saw him, polo and khakis pressed, I could not imagine him true – violent, uncontrolled. In the wastebasket of his bathroom trash there were bottle caps, cigarette butts. He smelled cleanly stale. His face was tanned, an unmoving mask.
There are a number of safe things that can bring, you back into awareness of an untrue self – the expanse of a green lawn, the neat swing of metal. But loneliness colors every true intersection of mind, spirit, and body; in your fullness, you cannot join to anyone else, unaware as you are of yourself. There is no opening. When my friend began reading the Tao in soft tones – when we had consumed poem after poem, pita chip after pita chip loaded with hummus or some other non-descript, pre-packaged dip – we thought we had come off the high, as if it would wear off immediately. Once again we cared for each other enough to join hands. Once again, we veered slightly off in the aftershock of full self. What we had understood intuitively moments ago, we spoke awkwardly into memory.
When saints smoke pot, there are rules to be followed: lips as dry as prayer, hold the smoke sacred. Fullness, in art as in life, is the over-edited: a concept best represented by sculptured altar pieces which the wax candles adore. Know the raw silk, hold the uncut wood, implores Lao Tzu. Move.
Jennifer Russo is a contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Ann Arbor. This is her first appearance in these pages.
“Never Heal Myself” – Cults (mp3)
“You Know What I Mean” – Cults (mp3)
“Oh My God” – Cults (mp3)