It was Saturday, and I had homework to do.
Art school is really a kick in the ass, time-wise. I’m sure all university work is, but when you don’t study for that psych test the only people who must know about your miserable failure are the grad student who graded it and you. But walk into Three Dimensional Design with a hastily slapped together architectural model and everybody knows that you half-assed it; even worse, part of your grade depends on the peer critique of your crappy project.
And if that wasn’t enough to ruin a perfectly good spring Saturday, it was my birthday.
The worst thing about turning nineteen in 1986 was that Paul Hardcastle’s “19” was still fresh in the pop culture psyche. I didn’t really have any strong opinions about Hardcastle, but repeated shouts of “nuh-nuh-nuh-nineteen” were, oh, let’s just call them unwelcome.
Maybe that wasn’t truly the worst thing, though. As much as I wanted out of Spartanburg and onto a path of my own choosing, this was my first milestone away from home. I missed my childhood friends and my mother. Even a dust up with my father sounded more appealing than having a birthday so far from home.
Between depression and homework, I didn’t really want to do anything for my birthday. I wanted to hole up in the Windsor Arms Apartments with my glue gun, my foam core board and my burnt-orange carpet, assembling my design for a home that lived harmoniously on Kansas’s flat plains. My buddies Dave and Kelly weren’t having any of it: “A Disturbed Jennifer is playing a basement show tonight. Come on, we’re going.”
A Disturbed Jennifer was the Savannah band during the mid-80s. Their songs were dark, moody, post-punk — dissonance served up in wails and moans. Their lead singer was the first guy I ever saw who made wearing a skirt look cool (the other: Jane’s Addiction’s Dave Navarro). A dark, exposed brick basement beneath a women’s clothing store was the perfect ADJ venue.
“I want to buy you a present,” Dave shouted over the band. “Have you ever dropped acid?”
“No,” I yelled.
“Me neither,” Kelly said.
“I’ll be back.” Dave circulated through the crowd. His lips moved, and then the listener’s head would tilt closer to hear the question over the wall of feedback, inevitably shaking Dave off. Kelly and I watched, and Dave started playing up the rejections with the exaggerated gestures of a Fred Willard character: Wha’ happened? Eventually he circled back to us. “This place is dry. Let’s get out of here.”
“I know somebody who might have some,” Kelly said. We followed her over to Pulaski House, SCAD’s girls dorm. “Wait here, I’ll go get her.” She came back a few minutes later with one of my classmates from Drawing I.
“This is Dave and James. It’s James’s birthday.”
“Happy birthday,” Drawing I girl said.
“Nuh-nuh-nuh-nineteen. Here,” she said, and she handed me a small rectangle made from aluminum foil.
“What do we do?” Kelly asked.
“Put it on your tongue and let it absorb.”
“How much do we take?”
“There’s three tabs there. If you’re scared, just take half a tab.”
We stood there with the little squares of blue paper on the tips of our index fingers. Dave giggled in his half child/half psychotic manner, and we put the tabs on our tongues. Wha’ happened?
“What now?” Kelly asked.
“Now you wait,” her friend said, and she disappeared into the dormitory.
Dave knew where a party was happening, so we walked over and waited for the LSD to come on.
“Do you feel anything yet?”
“I don’t think so.”
Margaret showed up with her neighbor, Connie. She sat on the couch, glaring at the three of us while we giggled in our little circle, waiting for the fireworks. Eventually she stomped over and said, “What’s so funny?”
“I know you’re talking about me.”
“No we aren’t.”
“Yes you are. That’s why you’re laughing.”
“Calm down, Margaret,” Kelly said, but in her thick Boston accent: Cahm down, Mahgrit. “We just took acid. It’s James’s birthday.”
“Oh my God. Y’all are on drugs,” Margaret said. Dave cackled. “Come here, I need to talk to you,” she said, and she grabbed my hand. She led me upstairs to an empty bedroom. The lights were dimmed in the customary “stay out of this room, but you can look if you’d like” party fashion. I sat in a chair across from her seat on the edge of the bed.
“What is wrong with you?” Margaret said.
“Nothing. It’s my birthday.”
“Are you doing drugs because of Tuesday?”
“I know you love her.”
My jaw clenched. The room went black except for Margaret, who radiated her own light. Everything about her seemed brighter — her highlights, her mid-80s art school clothing, the light reflecting off of her earrings and bangles. Her lips were red and beautiful, the way they slipped over her white teeth and pursed tautly before releasing percussives like soap bubbles. Puh-puh-puh. Even the air seemed to shimmer.
“Are you even listening to me?” she said.
“Yeah, of course.”
“No you aren’t. You’re tripping.”
“I’m listening to you.”
“Do you think that makes you look cool? You’re sitting there staring like an idiot.”
Margaret had seen too many ABC After School Specials.
I tried hard to focus while she chastised me for passing her up just because she was ugly, which I couldn’t follow because at that moment she was beautiful. On and on about what a horrible person I was, and the entire time Ace Frehley kept appearing over her left shoulder. It wasn’t Ace, but rather a crumpled sweater tossed on top of the dresser on the far side of the bed. I knew this, but if I switched my focus from the sweater to Margaret then Ace appeared again. He was a sneaky bastard.
Eventually Margaret cleansed her soul and we rejoined the party. “Where’s Dave?” I asked Kelly.
“His roommates showed up and they all took off. I have to get out of here. I’m tripping hard.”
I walked Kelly back to her apartment and piled into the Quincymobile for the long, straight drive down Abercorn and back to my apartment. It was the wee hours, maybe two in the morning, and the street was empty: nothing but four lanes of pavement, one Ford LTD wagon, and streetlights towering like one-eyed, armless giants.
The windshield split the beams of light into the visible spectrum and then some, sparkly and beautiful. When I looked straight at them the edges of my contact lenses caught the light and spun it in beautiful arcs.
I noticed in my peripheral vision that the banks, strip malls, and fast food restaurants lining Abercorn were caught up in the light show, too. The entire known universe froze in its place, staring like the astronaut at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey as the colored lights streaked past.
Or, I was idling on the shoulder, fixated on the street lights.
Get it together, James. Only a few more miles. I brought the big, ugly station wagon back up to cruising speed and pointed my eyes straight ahead. No street lights or Ace Frehleys were going to distract me this time. My whole face felt tight, as if the roller coaster had been barreling down hill for hours. Jaw clinched, death grip on the wheel, and I was idling on the shoulder again.
All the way down that vacant suburban artery like the simplest game of Frogger ever played: Forward a few hundred feet, idle and stare; forward a few hundred feet, idle and stare; forward a few….
I finally made it back to my apartment at the Windsor Arms with the burnt-orange carpeting. A package from my mother rested by the door: a birthday present. I unwrapped it (tear, idle, stare, tear, idle, stare….) Inside was a big, red and silver chromatic harmonica. The thing had roughly the size and appearance of a 1953 Buick Roadmaster.
What makes a chromatic harmonica special is the presence of a little whammy bar, a button on the end that when pressed alters the note a half step. In other words, you can stand in your tiny kitchen and without any previous harmonica experience play something that sounds a bit like the Twilight Zone theme, which I did. Over and over. And over.
The empty apartment plus the eerie music divided by the coefficient of the burnt-orange carpet equaled James freaked completely the fuck out. I ran (translation: walked, stopping to stare at everything) upstairs and hid in the bathtub. Cool, white porcelain — no chili con carpet. Hal? Yes, Dave? Is this what the afterlife looks like? Your question is illogical, Dave. How can one perceive reality after life has terminated? Hal? Yes, Dave? Wha’ happened?
Cool white porcelain. If felt so good.
I blew Chuck Mangione’s “Feels So Good” on my invisible trumpet, humming through pursed lips, delighting at the way my own sounds bounced off of the tile. Over and over. And over. This time there was no freakout, though. I was safe inside my porcelain womb, and Chuck Mangione was the greatest songwriter of all time.
I finally came down around nine in the morning. My tongue lapped at the coppery taste of blood that wasn’t there. I was still high enough to equate the taste to rat poison and imagine it seeping through my pores.
It was Sunday, and I had homework to do.