The dining table had been stretched twice its normal length, the little porcelain galaxies of food spread across its entire surface – salty golden nebulas of chips, constellations of candy and huge rugged clusters of fried chicken. In sparse assortment were fruits and vegetables and towards the wall ruled the kingdom of the sweets, or, to follow the astronomical analogies, what I called the diabetic black hole.
“No touching, Pat, and no eating,” demanded my roommate. “Not till people come.”
It was New Year’s Eve 2000, on the real verge of the millennium. My roommate at the time, an older rotund Russian man named Mikhailov who, I thought, in face and jolly energy, passed for a younger and more carefree Kris Kringle, aspired desperately — and sometimes pathetically — to “party American”. He loved throwing events, despite the ironic reliance on my friends to fill them. Maybe one or two co-workers of his came. I never remembered their names.
I’m not necessarily complaining. As an astrophysics doctoral candidate, my eyes were far better acquainted with numbers than faces, and it was good that he kept me social. Especially at a time when my friends were slyly jumping ship, which in hindsight I attribute to my erratic, congested schedule and, admittedly, my academic solipsism, fueled by youth, that asserted that anyone who I felt couldn’t match my Big Grand ways of thinking were unworthy of my time. I felt I’d conquered the world around me — I knew its tricks, knew the secrets under the hood and the next cave of wonders could only be the heavens and so I rattled on about philosophy and cosmology, the Big Issues.
Thus I had little interest, unlike many of my friends, in the ceaseless babble of Earthly affairs, be they political or social or celebrity or fashion or anything else. They never actually said much to me but it took only one remark and an accompanying look from a blind date to make me sensitive to that same look in my friends’ faces, the look that said, “Is this all you’re ever going to talk about?”
That night, I resolved to have fun –the last thousand years were ending, after all. Plus my mouth was watering for beer in a way that made me wonder if I had an alcoholic in me. Much of what Mikhailov had out in the way of drinks didn’t appeal to me. Though there was some variety in the glistening forest of vodka bottles, it came in the form of bourbon or rum. There were also two bottles of white wine. I offered to head to the store to load up further and with big-toothed appreciation he clapped my back and gestured zealously at the door, ushering me on my little quest.
Even though the store was only about a block away, with my tendency to not stray long from my desk I usually drove. Today however felt different; only a half-hour of daylight remained for the century, for the millennium — it was an exceptionally nice day for winter, even for Los Angeles, and I’d experienced it all behind a window. I resolved to walk, stretch a bit, get some fresh smog. I thought to grab my cell phone from my room but figured I wouldn’t need it for such a short jaunt. When Mikhailov wasn’t looking I snatched a cookie for the road, finishing it before reaching the main gate of the complex.
The sky was a luminous blue, a twilight sandwiched between the massive dying campfire of the sun and the eddying blackness of the cosmic sky, that nightly reminder of infinity our quaint star mercifully keeps from us as long as it can. Serpentine drizzles of pink-frosted clouds drew away towards the horizon and the air, while smoggy of course, had that ripe wintry smell to it.
As I walked my brain became a black hole, sucking into oblivion all else around me as it ran and reran current issues I was having in my work, which fittingly dealt with black holes, a subject over which I’d been moderately obsessed since I realized as a kid they were actually real, not cool ingredients for science fiction. To me nothing in the universe was as mysterious. To think that these invisible gluttons of light truly hang out there as open wounds in nature, bullying physical logic, possibly existing as passages to some other realm or realms into which they excrete their voluminous intake – it jazzed me. Hell, these things eat stars – if that isn’t a monster to end all those of the comic panel or movie screen, I don’t know what is.
The din of my scholastic thoughts waned once I reached the store. There was more pressing business afoot.
It was when I started trolling the aisles, picking out the booze, that I noticed something amiss though I couldn’t define it and it was easy to ignore, especially in the throes of the anticipatory selection of drinks, which quickly had me including in my list bottle after bottle, six-pack after six-pack. Everything looked good. Having grabbed a basket, I realized I’d need more space so I retrieved a cart and wheeled away, loading up.
The sky blackened as I approached the counter.
I paid, bagged everything, trying to ignore a strange buzzing feeling deep within, in my very marrow, as if my body were gearing up, being primed for something.
Wheeling the cart out into the funereal lighting of the streetlamps, I stopped.
You walked here, dolt. Remember?
A little panicky flare went up in me, but I reasoned that I could just take the shopping cart. It wasn’t exactly legal, or ethical, but I’d seen plenty of homeless people with them, and my parents’ neighbor used to bring them home all the time.
Except when I got to the edge of the parking lot, the wheels locked up and I could go no further. I saw the sign at the front of the cart which had been there the entire time, unnoticed: ‘Equipped with Anti-Theft Distance Locks’. I lowered my head. Shook it.
And my cell phone sat comfortably on my desk.
Of course, it’s easy now to say I should’ve just asked the clerk to watch the stuff for me as I went back to get my car. At the time I wasn’t sure I could do that, and furthermore my defensive claws were always up protecting my ego and my intellect, even from myself. My entire life I’ve had a phobia of being perceived as stupid, and have gone to great lengths to market myself as anything but, including studying astrophysics and addressing Big Issues whenever I could, because just attempting such things tends to impress. Even with confidence that someone was ‘below’ me intellectually, as the hazy-eyed clerk likely was, I couldn’t present to him such a memorable slip-up when he didn’t know me. To counteract it I would probably have to wax in-depth on Cosmic Inflation.
So I went back in and bought a big plastic container and transferred everything into it. I thought this would prove a decent solution, that I could get a little workout carrying it back, but the weight of the liquor-filled container was positively Titan in scope, enviable only to Atlas.
Terribly out of shape, I managed only to the sidewalk before my arms shuddered their complaints and I set it down.
Meanwhile, something was happening and I couldn’t tell if it was happening to me or everyone else or both. It was tangible enough to be undeniable, intangible enough to be indescribable. Something in the interface between me and the surrounding buildings, these trees, these passing cars and people was heightened; an electric connection thrown up a volt. All things assumed a strange veneer. The alleyway was a cement River of Styx cut long through the blinking firelights of Hades.
And I had to haul this damn container.
Put yourself out, I thought. Divorce mind from matter. It’s not that heavy. You’re young. Charge ahead and do it.
First I had to cross the street. Deciding to play it safe, I shoved the container on down to the crosswalk. The scraping-crunching cacophony of the plastic against pavement made it seem as though I were ripping through spacetime itself. Indeed with these queer sensations such a thing appeared rather possible.
Already I was hot, my breathing labored. Muscles unused since childhood were wrenched awake, painfully so. Mild dizziness set in and stars peppered my vision, shooting around like little meteors. I closed my eyes, waiting for them to stop, but they seemed to enjoy the black canvas of my eyelids even more, and swiftly gathered about like sentient pebbles to form eyes, silvery eyes wide and peering back at me. They blinked. I snapped mine open.
The signal flashed Walk. With a deep breath I picked up the container, in mortal combat with gravity, and heaved it fast as I could across the intersection. From dark windshields the faces in the cars followed me and in one I caught something wet, a shimmering, amphibious complexion and hollow orange eyes – foreign and unknown, but surely a trick of light as a quick second glance confirmed nothing of the first.
I reached the other side and rested, breath pulsing, heart a thunderous din, banging and clamoring to be let out, to join another body perhaps, another brain, one not so dimwitted or whacked out.
My left arm ached, so for a short while I dragged the container with my right. Stopping to rest again by a shadowed alcove, I noticed a homeless man sitting against the stucco wall. He too was staring at me, and I stared at him behind the watery shiftiness of my vision.
“Happy Millennium,” he said to me.
I didn’t respond, too mesmerized by the unfolding sight: he was being broken down into smaller and smaller constituents, pore by pore, molecule by molecule, cell by cell, and each piece glowed faintly and was strung together by faint threads of light that were, most astonishingly, maintained by thousands of tiny nymph-like creatures hovering amongst him and ensuring his corporeal cohesion. Much as with a crowd of people, I gleaned thousands of different personalities in these entities – some were anxious, others jokey, others lazy and all things between and beyond.
I pulled away and shoved the container onward, scraping it to the mouth of the alleyway where once again I had to stop to catch my breath.
What the hell is happening to me?
My mind scrambled for answers. In the flurry of possibilities – which included tumors, schizophrenia or degenerative eye disease – I remembered the chocolate chip cookie I’d had going out, and going further back I recalled Mikhailov remarking to me, while I was characteristically distracted with my studies and preparing breakfast, that from a friend of his he was going to secure a dozen mushroom cookies, all for New Year’s. ‘A wild time,’ he’d said. ‘Crazy, crazy.’ He must have set them out and I must have taken one. I centered on this explanation, recognizing it as the most probable and also the most assuaging even though I’d never before taken a hallucinogen.
Yet even this self-assured answer did little to reduce a paralyzing loneliness that cut through me, a stony-weighted sense of isolation, of being stranded, despite standing some hundred and fifty yards from home. I felt I wouldn’t get there. And I felt that if I didn’t destroy myself then something else would.
But nothing’s there.
The alleyway was desolate, quiet, lit only by the occasional window of adjacent apartments and the icy Cyclopean glare of the moon in the star-hungry sky. I kept my head down as I shoved the container forward, heaving long step by long step, yard by yard, all to the clanging, jingling postmodern score of the bottles within knocking about one another.
I noticed other things though I tried not to. Perched upon the corner of one of the apartment buildings, peering down on me with faint ember-eyes, was a large winged creature with vague resemblance to the outline of a gargoyle but more feathery in makeup, like a giant owl. In its stare I was looking through a tunnel of billions, trillions of light-years, to the flickering embryo of the Big Bang, perhaps, and then it spread its wings, long-cloaked limbs eclipsing briefly the moon until the whole image blipped like a television with bad reception and, with nary a sound, it sunk seamless into the darkness behind it.
Keep moving – keep moving –
Pushing the container was the fastest mode of travel, though I was sure it was tearing up the bottom. I stopped at intervals to ease my muscles, catch my breath, struggling not to make much eye contact with anything around me. Yet even from the blankness of the ground I couldn’t escape the strangeness, as the pavement started bubbling beneath my feet, popping, roiling like black lava and I was terrified I might be standing on a sinkhole or some undiscovered fault line ready to pry open the rugged maw of the planet. I pressed on, trying not to sob, telling myself none of this was real though such a mantra had to me become like a useless, stale prayer. Even if these things weren’t physically real, even if they were mere byproducts of a drug, that still meant my brain was making them, that they existed as creations engineered by some haywire Dr. Frankenstein working deep in my subconscious.
At last I made to the other end of the alley, watched by things felt but unseen. A towel hanging over a balcony became momentarily a waterfall, and a tree on my street assumed the likeness of some thirty-foot rodent, wholly still and smiling at me and I thought, No, that’s ridiculous. That’s not a rodent. The tree is having fun with me. It’s doing impressions.
Thankfully, from the street level, getting to my place required no stairs. Rest was only a gate and a medium-length corridor away, and this gave me the final surge of determination needed, once the gate was open, to pick up the damn container and carry it the rest of the way, one last masochistic burn before I could partake of its contents and lighten myself of everything. And clobber Mikhailov for the cookie, which I really knew was my fault.
The hallways of my complex were bone-white, very stark, a kind of Kubrick dream, I’d always thought, good for a supernatural movie; such prior musings were pulled from storage by the mushrooms which threw upon the walls a flanking gallery of shadows, bobbing heads and arms gelled into one long gray mass that watched me, goaded me, laughed at me as I traversed this final stretch. I tried to ignore them, even as some of them aspired to greater dimensions and greater features, elementary faces struggling to transcend this wall that was suddenly like a portal. But it wasn’t. It was my goddamn apartment hallway and nothing else.
I heard voices from my apartment. Guests had arrived. I reached the door and set down the container and stopped – how could I tell them this? How could I start the new millennium by subjecting myself to such an embarrassing spectacle? I would blame it on the mushrooms, I decided. Yes. They had kicked my brain off its axis, thrown me for a loop. And I’d try to lateral the laughs to Mikhailov. Or his friend who’d made the cookies. Anyone.
I went in. Heads turned, though not as many as I expected.
“Patman!” said a med school buddy of mine named Devon. ‘You okay? You look – wild. Exhausted.’
“He’s been partying somewhere else first!” quipped another friend, Anna, a writer and ex-fling. “That Benedict Arnold!”
Shaking my head and laughing (mostly at myself) I brought the container in and threw a universal greeting to every face in the room as I made a beeline for the couch and collapsed next to a man named Alex, one of Mikhailov’s friends. He smiled at me and sipped a glass of vodka.
As Mikhailov went to assiduous work unpacking the container, he said, ‘You carry this from store?’
“I did,” I said. “Thought I’d get a workout.”
‘Jesus,’ said Devon. “Hope you lifted with your legs.”
“I would’ve been fine, too,” I said, pointing, “had I not accidentally taken one of those damn cookies.”
Several murmurs of “What cookies?” ricocheted from tongue to tongue. Mikhailov looked at me quizzically. “Cookies?”
“The chocolate chip!” I said. “Those were the mushroom cookies you said you got from your friend, right?”
“Ohh.” Comprehension washed over his big round face and I felt validated, though it was very short-lived. “No, no, I never get them. Serge bring them later.”
I could feel blood make funny movements in my veins. I wasn’t sure what to say and felt no compulsion to press the issue, especially with everyone looking at me. I also noticed, gratefully, that the visions and my strange sensation had passed.
“Throw me a drink,” I said.
Much of the party thereafter was a blur, though a memorable blur. Particularly I remember a prominent, underpinning emotion and that was appreciation. This was a small world I’d built, these friends of mine, and it was a haven, an intimate vessel on dark seas, the waters of which – its swells, its chops, its enigmas concealed – lashed its every side, without buffer. We may often think we’re on an earthly cruise ship drifting on this Mystery but we’re actually just floating in it, submerged and vulnerable, kicking and stroking along.
This small world of mine was a fragile one, a temporary one, but I was there in it, and that night I somehow knew that better than any other.
Come midnight we joined the millions on this coast watching and chanting with the rerun of the Times Square celebration.
“Ten – Nine – Eight – Seven – Six –”
Anna put her arm around my shoulder, touched her drink with mine. ‘So Soon-to-be-Doctor, what’s going to happen these next thousand years?’
I shrugged. The doorbell rang.
“Three – Two – One – Happy New Year!” Added by most everyone, “And Millennium!”
With a blower jutting from his mouth, Mikhailov went to get the door. There was an excited, rapid-fire exchange of Russian, and a slim man walked in carrying a covered plate. I picked up his name was Serge. In English he apologized for being late, and Mikhailov teased him further in Russian.
Serge set his plate next to the cookie dish I’d taken from earlier, which was now a wasteland of crumbs. As far I know, no one had an inkling of the issues I’d had after eating them.
Mikhailov gestured, mostly looking at me. “Cookies come!”
I waved him off. “No, no.”
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