Chapter Eleven: The Mix
“The ordinary waking consciousness is a very useful and, on most occasions, an indispensable state of mind; but it is by no means the only form of consciousness, nor in all circumstances the best.”
We ordered three IPAs and sipped at the heads as soon as they were put down in front of us. I’d only known Sari for a couple of days and already felt I was involved in criminality, in dangerous stuff that at the very least could threaten my status as a law-abiding citizen and certainly my ever-precarious role as that most upstanding member of society: a teacher.
As she got ready to explain things to me Sari first blossomed into the confident, if not slightly self-satisfied smile that characterized her. She sat erect and fanned out her hands before her in an expository gesture, “The greatest untapped niche in psychopharmacology is the personal growth industry: drugs that can stimulate your brain, expand your mind, build your personality. What is there? At best, amphetamines and drugs like them; they’re proven to enhance cognitive functions, but they’re unreliable and even dangerous. They’re mostly used to address some problem like sleeplessness or ADHD. They’ll prescribe kids Ritalin like candy although I’m skeptical about the alleged successes. You probably see this kind of stuff as a teacher.”
Both Rayne and I knew that we actually don’t know which kids are on which drugs--that’s all confidential stuff that only the nurse knows. So I replied with a half nod, half shrug which meant that I knew what she meant, that there are lots of kids put on that stuff, but I don’t know the gory details.
My reply was enough for her and she continued, bordering on that presumptuous tone of an infomercial, “We all know and love stimulants. Caffeine has to be the most successful stimulant in human history, rivaled only by nicotine. What’s left? Everything else is illicit. Club drugs, coke, et cetera. They’re not what I would consider cognitive enhancers--that’s getting high, euphoria. Which is fine, but it’s not edifying. I’m interesting in changing lives, in an individual’s growth.”
I felt like I should raise my hand to interrupt the lecture, but I didn’t. “Aren’t things like Prozac touted as such a wonder drug?” I had read that in some article.
She looked at me like I was nuts, “That’s an antidepressant, not what I’m talking about. That’s getting nonfunctioning people on their feet, not functioning people beyond their limits. And have you ever seen the list of side effects of that stuff? Cure might be worse that the disease.”
Rayne was next to me shredding a paper napkin slowly. She must have heard all this a dozen times before, so now I felt she was listening anew as if from my perspective.
Sari soldiered on, “Point is there’s nothing safe and solely geared toward personal growth through cognitive stimulation. You have your Prozac to get depressed people out of bed each day. No doubt there are lot of people that need that-- look at the billion dollar antidepressant industry. But that’s a band-aid. What about the your average Joe, maybe even the above average person that has no cognitive problems? They’re functioning fine, but there’s really no need to do more, to step outside their comfort zone. Or maybe they’re cognitively sound but lacking otherwise, they feel unfulfilled, like they’re missing out on life.
She paused to gauge my reaction, to see how this was settling in. I was admittedly intrigued and I wanted to know more.
Satisfied she had me hooked she smiled like a wizard and her blue eyes blazed, “I’m talking about an existential cure, something that gives you the motivation to get out of bed in the morning and do something more than a robotic job, or any of the undemanding ordinary things we as a society expect from ourselves. I’m talking about the extraordinary. Maybe people don’t do more with their lives because they don’t know of anything outside the humdrum? Maybe if they had a glimpse of the extraordinary they would abandon the ordinary? What if they found out they weren’t who they thought they were, or at least they had depths they never knew of? ”
I leaned in and lowered my voice, “So let me guess. You made this wonder drug up there at the institute.”
“I sure did.”
“You said it’s some kind of marine center and you made the drug from fish?”
“Yes, the Institute is an aquatic research facility. I was working on pharmacological applications of certain chemical compounds made from fish.”
I must have had a vaguely puzzled expression.
She laughed a little, “Yes. There are certain fish that when eaten have hallucinogenic effects. It’s actually not the fish themselves,” she scanned the area and continued the thought in a near whisper, “It’s what they eat: certain algae, some sea grasses, plankton.” She resumed her normal speaking voice, “That’s my discovery: the particular formula.”
“So the drug is a hallucinogenic?”
“Well, if you had to pigeonhole it, yes, it would be classified as a hallucinogenic.”
I leaned back and smiled at my clearer understanding of it, “So like some Timothy Leary hippie stuff. Drop acid. Explore your consciousness.”
She didn’t like where I was going with that. Her smile got forced, tight and not showing in her eyes, “Well not quite. It’s not as conducive to visual hallucinations. It’s the good parts of a hallucinogen without all the distracting Jim Morrison stuff. But if you want to look at it in terms of LSD, there are many similarities and it could be an aid for vision quests. Definitely helps you explore your personality, pique your creativity.”
Rayne broke in, “Did you know he died tripping? Wanted to go out with a bang.”
I looked at her, “Who?”
"Uh, I think that was actually Huxley."
"Aldous Huxley. You know: Brave New World?
I couldn't tell by her blank expression what Rayne's confusion was about. I turned back to Sari, still trying to get a grasp on this drug, “So does one trip when on this drug?”
“No. Not like acid. Like I said, it’s not debilitating. Taken in therapeutic doses and preferably under the guidance of a psychologist or some kind of experienced, knowledgeable coach it gives you confidence, expands your creativity, allows you to focus on the more cognitive and--for lack of a better secular word--spiritual realms.”
We were all silent for a few seconds.
Sari narrowed her eyes, sought the right phrase, “A body hack.”
I could tell from a little twist in her smile that she liked that as a buzzword.
“Look, nowadays doing hallucinogens isn’t some crazy thing you go on a retreat to a sweat lodge for. There is a subculture in which this kind of stuff goes on right under our noses. I’m not talking about high school kids on Friday night. I’m talking Silicon Valley types, hipsters in the tech industry, advertising, Hollywood, fields where a little creative boost can go a long way. It’s called microdosing. You could work with one of these people everyday.”
I quickly thought of any teachers that seemed particularly off or zonked out or weird. I had a hard time not thinking of any that didn’t fit that description. How does one differentiate those burnt out and bordering on a mental breakdown versus those microdosing on LSD? Rayne. What about her? Was she teaching Civics on acid? “And these people on LSD are fully-functional?”
She held up her hands, “Supposedly. I wouldn’t advise operating machinery and I suspect lots of tasks requiring sustained focus might be difficult. It’s probably limiting to certain tasks and environments. But not with my mix. That’s the thing. No recovery time, no debilitating effects. No nasty side effects. It’s like popping an aspirin but your life becomes more interesting, more confident. Your cognitive abilities are increased, intelligence amplified, creativity where you didn’t know you had it. It is nothing short of revolutionary.”
“Is that what you call it? Your mix?”
“For now. Haven’t spent much time branding it. I’m still working on getting the formula right.”
“I have to say it sounds a bit too good to be true.”
Her eyes widened and she nodded quickly, a recognition that yes, it is indeed so good that it certainly would seem to good to be true.
“But how do you know all these cognitive abilities are increased? Have you tested it on people?”
She got dodgy at that, eyes and hands busy elsewhere, “Tests have been done...”
Rayne got in quickly, “Like that self-monitoring thing.”
Sari soured at that, raised her eyebrows at Rayne and cocked up the corner of her mouth.
I looked at Rayne. She held back a bratty smile, not looking up from the torn napkin she was folding into a ragged mini sandwich shape. She knew Sari wouldn’t like what she had brought up.
Sari tried to control the sarcasm but it leaked in copiously around the edges, “I’m thankful to have Rayne as my devil’s advocate.” She continued in a drawn-out, belabored voice, as if having to recite the standard reply was an exasperating obligation, “Yes, certain data would point to a tendency in certain cases for people while under the drug to rate their abilities and their intelligence higher than it actually is. But trust me there’s also a lot of evidence--evidence in the form of tangible output that is unlike anything the subject thought they were capable of. Sure, there is an element of overconfidence perhaps, but what’s wrong with that if the results are real? How much of any confidence is overconfidence?”
The waiter came and I looked through the beer menu for another beer and ordered it. Rayne got the same beer I did but Sari still had half of her first beer left. She had after all already shared a beer with my neighbor for breakfast that morning.
I could tell Sari had been staring at me, replaying our discussion, not wanting to leave it. She bit her bottom lip, then came to a decision.
“If you tried some you would know what I mean. The proof is in the pudding. Why don’t you try some?”
“No, thanks. Don’t do drugs.”
“Except for alcohol.”
“True. Except for alcohol.”
“You never smoke a joint?”
“Sure, the occasional joint if there’s one lying about.”
“Coke? Oxy? Ecstasy?”
“No, nothing like that.”
That was a lie. Back in the nineties when I just moved into Philadelphia I was hanging around with an old friend I’d known from college name Dean. For several months it became a habit to go out to a few bars with him on the weekend. We had fun drinking and joking and checking out the freaks. This scene was for him a more regular thing, as was his purchase of a dime bag of cocaine. I went along in the spirit of a raucous night out on the town. We’d do lines in the bathroom and that would fuel more fun and drinking. But the coke quickly became more than a little sugar in our coffee. The laughs and conversation had faded and it became all about scoring and doing it up. It got to the point that Dean would only look around with a glazed, washed-out look of dread at our surroundings and soon started hitting me up for money to get more.
I woke up one morning--I imagine there was a glance at the wreck in the mirror--and I felt like a loser, like one of the regulars at those places we had been frequenting, the ones who were just timing out their lives with coke and booze and cigarettes. I told Dean I was signed up for grad classes and wouldn’t be able to hang like that anymore. Although I had indeed signed up for grad school I had in truth gotten scared, scared of ending up like those people I saw in the bars: the cackling hags, the retail jobbers, the skanks and wayward hollow men that need to unwind all night, every night. How easy it was to become one of the freaks.
That phase gave me a sufficient taste of the banality of drugs to swear them off. So compartmentalized and distant were those times and that person I was that it didn’t feel like a lie to never confess it to anybody.
Now Sari was probing, a veritable pharmacological drug pusher, “So you have no idea what kind of experience would be in store for you.”
I shrugged, “I did some shrooms once. Never acid.”
Rayne looked at me and laughed, “Never dropped a tab and went to a Metallica concert?”
Rayne’s second beer might have been getting to her. That joking bratty tone was becoming more pronounced. I forced more of a smile than I felt, “Can’t say I did.”
She said loudly, as if to make sure others heard, “LSD? Lower Slower Delaware? Like look around you?”
I could see Sari’s patience with goofy Rayne was wearing thin. She transferred her gaze from her to me, “How was that? The shrooms...”
“We binge-watched Kubrick films before they called it binge-watching, then took a walk in a corn field. It was really cool. Still remember it vividly.”
“So you did shrooms and liked it, but never acid.”
“I always heard the horror stories of bad trips. That was enough to scare me off it.”
“So that’s my drug: all the good parts without the bad trips.”
Rayne said, “Kid in my high school jumped off a building thinking he could fly.”
Sari scowled, “Not true. Every school has that as an urban legend.”
That made me think of the local suicides. “So wait, isn’t this drug of yours the one you think is somehow involved in these suicides?”
She squirmed, “Well, yes.” Her eyes darted around and she moved closer with an agitation to her whisper, “At extremely high doses or at high concentrations there can be psychotic-like reactions. But that’s taking a dose more than ten times the amount you’re supposed to. It's overdosing.”
Ah, now things were coming together. “So these people must have overdosed.”
“Soooo...how did this happen?”
Sari looked truly perplexed, “I honestly don’t have the slightest idea. As far as I know I have in my possession the only supply.” An idea flashed into her mind, “Wanna see?”
I put some money down for the beer and we all followed Sari toward the back. We went through the swinging door that led into the kitchen. An unshaven chef off in his mental zone looked up at us with little interest. Sari offered some kind of greeting but he didn’t respond. Another quick turn and we were going down wooden steps. Before we got to the bottom the old basement mildew smell hit us. Newly poured concrete floor, original stone walls. Racks of food supplies along the one wall and in the rear, a walk-in fridge. Sari stopped at a door and took a key out of her purse. She unlocked the door, opened it and flicked on a switch. Three rows of fluorescent lights buzzed on, spreading their cold bluish white. Crossing the threshold the atmosphere became significantly cooler with a chemical acridity mixed with the mildew. The door closed behind us and clicked shut.
It was a spacious lab the size of my place’s first floor, complete with test tubes and burners and barrel-like contraptions. It was like Sari: neat and orderly but complicated and a lot to take in all at once.
Rayne and I stood there just inside the door while I took in everything. Sari walked to the main stretch of tables along the wall and bent down to one of the cabinets underneath. With another key she unlocked its door and slid it open. She opened another case inside, took out a smaller box and put in on the stainless steel countertop. She gestured for us to come over and we walked over slowly.
The small box was an X-Men lunchbox. Sari was smiling like a proud mother. She opened the lid.
Inside there were nine corked test tubes in a row, all secured by charcoal grey packing foam cut to fit each tube. Each was labeled with a Roman numeral from one to nine. The first two and half of the third were empty but a coating of residue showed that they had been full at one point. In the others was a light powder that seemed to gradually get darker with each succeeding tube.
Sari was looking at these progeny of hers, “This is it, all I’ve made. We used the first two and I gave Kyle half of the third to shut him up. I keep it locked up here and I have the only key to this cabinet. Nobody is allowed in my lab. Nobody even knows what’s in here. Whatever’s out there did not come from here.”
Rayne sounded anxious, “How the hell then? Are you sure they overdosed on the mix?”
“If you saw what I saw in that lady’s garage you’d know too.” She shut the lunch box lid and went about putting it back where she’d gotten it in reverse order. “And the reported behavior. It’s either the mix or the biggest god-damned coincidence ever.” She stood and turned to us with a hand on her hip. “No really, Cliff, I think we should all dose ourselves. You have to see for yourself.”
Admittedly, when I had seen the powder, I was surprised at the reaction I had deep down--just noticeable. It was over a decade ago since I’d consumed any drug in the form of a powder, but the thrill of it all came back as a physiological memory: a tightening of my jaw, a trace of dizzy euphoria, an almost physical shiver. The sight of that powder and the association with those wild Dean months was making some chemical in my brain go Pavlovian.
“Huh?” Sari was asking, “Are you sure you don’t want me to chop us up a line?” She was smiling at me, the allure of her perfect snow white teeth as powerful as the white powder in those damn vials.