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By Daniel Coble
I first drank Ghost Water before it was illegal. It came to me as one of those jewels of New Age geekery that fell from Melody's fingers like the impossibly bright droplet-lenses of dew that rained from the linden sapling she kicked on the morning after she first slept over.
Wonders sprang into being around Melody, as she brought people and places and things together in a beautiful kind of semi-planned serendipity. Like the way that inviting my sister to come with us to the Inner Harbor to listen to Fizzy Lincoln at the Gypsy Cave somehow resulted in my sister falling in love with a blue-eyed, incandescent mess of a girl named Steph. They married and adopted a child from Belize. Or the way that Melody's dragging me to Burning Man led me to a gig designing wine labels for Lucien, who let us spend a perfect July in his house on Skiathos, in the Aegean Sea. Magical events, discoveries, and relationships manifested wherever Melody walked. Treasures. Buttercups sprouting from the footsteps of a fairy queen. It was her gift.
She gave me my first Ghost Water as a literal gift, offered with both hands as though it was frankincense or myrrh for the baby Jesus. Tearing away her wrapping of delicate mulberry paper revealed a short aluminum can, like those my mother drank Tab from so long ago. It was cradled in a springy net of thick, sturdy foam, like one of those perfect, Japanese gift-melons.
Chinese words that could have been ingredient lists or marketing copy covered half of the sky-blue can.
Drink it at home, before bed, she told me. No, she insisted, it was not like the Pocari Sweat or the milky Calpis Soda she'd made me drink before. Just try it, she ordered, in her radiantly not-to-be-denied way.
In the small and drowsy hours of the night, with post-coital endorphins ringing through my body like temple bells, I drank it down. It tasted fresh and clear, with a subtle sweetness over a fainter green-tea bitterness. I imagined it pooling in the left of my stomach as I lay there on my side, Melody a tiny spoon cupped around big me, her breath rhythmic on my back.
I felt hard-packed dirt under my bare feet as I faced a little bridge of plywood atop three oil drums. The bridge spanned an eroded ditch lined with trash, and led to a low building with irregular walls of unreinforced concrete. A painted sign over the small doorway read "Abarrotes Mi Tiendita," but I had no idea what that meant. Three brown children in shorts and bright t-shirts played in front of the structure.
I wanted to cross the bridge and go inside, but I didn't. It didn't work that way. Instead I turned and walked up the rough road, passing little houses with hanging laundry, a group of kids kicking a volleyball, and a spotted and striped, dingo-looking dog that barked at the entire world.
The road sloped steeply up the length of a dusty ridge. From the top I could see a city spread between the hills and the ocean. I walked to a bizarre shack at the end of the road. It was built almost entirely of enormous blue and white signs for Barker-Caldwell, an American commercial real estate developer. I stepped inside, and a bearded man sat in the dimness on a scrap of carpet. He looked up at me, but I woke before my eyes could adjust enough to really see his face.
I was electrified. It had been more intense than I ever could have imagined. A universe in a can.
In the morning, Melody said she thought that Ghost Water was a spiritual thing: connecting to the collective unconscious. Maybe in Cincinnati or Tehran someone is drinking it and being you, she said. Designing shampoo bottles and playing the guitar and having sex with a girl named Melody. They'd better not be, I told her. We laughed and kissed and I knew I had to have more.
More. More, she had told me, again and again, on our first date almost two years before. The Ethiopian joint that became Our Place was loud and dim, and as our faces tingled with the spicy Misr Wat lentils, we gave each other our lives. She pulled each tidbit laboriously out of me, and gave me a piece of her in exchange. My father, smelling of hot sawdust and marijuana, fresh from compulsively turning bowls on his lathe in the garage. His hands on my back as he hugged me helplessly the day after my mother died. Melody's childhood in Georgia, and the boy that kissed her behind a big, plywood sign that turned out to have hateful Klan slogans on its front side. More. The relief with which I finally shaved off the sad, wispy little strands of facial hair that I had nurtured like precious orchids during my senior year of high school. The orgasmic, meditative, electric tickle of having her hands painted with henna Mehndi designs before a festival in Hyderabad, when she was twenty. More. The time my hand was punctured through by iron rebar as I played in a half-built house, and the day she found an injured starling in a playground and it died before she could get it home. More. The fears of mental illness I had in college, and my dreams of drawing comic books. Melody's heartbreak in Paris, when her artsy, mercurial lover admitted he had a wife.
As we learned each other better and better over time, such treasures of intimate revelation became scarcer, as they must. It wasn't that we had nothing to talk about. We could talk for hours about almost anything. But the intense high of sharing the unpolished, rough-edged shards of our lives was addictive, and after a few months neither of us could give the other enough to feed the craving. So we tried more Ghost Water, and it felt like just what we needed. More wonders to share with each other's souls, Melody said.
At first we did Ghost Water about twice a week, but very quickly it became hard to find, and we drank it more rarely. But the experiences it brought became more and more intense. We talked only once or twice about how it might work. Were these real people's actual memories? Where did they come from? Or did Ghost Water just make our subconscious minds so infinitely creative that we could conjure a thousand worlds as easily as breathing? Were we sipping a fullness of life that evolution had not yet brought us, or drinking the extracts of anonymous deaths? We stopped talking about these questions. I could imagine no answers that would make me happy.
My fifth time on Ghost Water, I had experienced being female. As I found myself pushing an empty stroller fast along the sinuous sidewalk of a suburban greenway, the melange of the scents of alien landscaping was almost overpowering. Tropical, flowering vines and sharp, resinous, Nordic conifers battled in my nasal passages. I could feel the tightness of my hands on the stroller, the dirt in the strappy sandals on my feet, and the texture of my shirt as it moved across my breasts with each step. Afterward, I wondered why the stroller was empty, and I wondered whether Melody was as aware of her breasts under the snug tops she wore, the friction of the fabric a continual reminder of the effect she was having on men around her.
That effect was something else I didn't like to think about. Melody always flirted like mad, but it was never coarse or manipulative. She knew everyone, liked everyone, and touched everyone. She had more real-life friends than my follow-whore of a sister had Facebook friends. But I was sure that she couldn't fail to notice how men reacted to her. How the guy at the art supplies store spoke faster and faster when she smiled at him. How her friends Tyler and Aaron held doors open for her and tried to be extra-charming and extra-witty in her presence. The way my father worked so studiously to not seem that he was checking out her ass. Melody was tuned in to people; there was no way she could not be aware of these things.
I didn't want to care about that. She loved me, not them. When I would slide into jealous petulance after a party, grumbling about the way she touched Tyler's arm or the way that gallery owner stared at her all night, she would tell me that I never needed to worry. I will always choose you, she told me. Always you.
I kept choosing Ghost Water. We both did. An artificial fuel to power more of the intoxicating sharing of our newborn relationship, we told each other. But that wasn't it. We were just getting direct hits. The unfamiliar made immediate, the expansion of the world through the soul of another, yes. But the joy wasn't in our post-Water discussions, or in our souls cuddling up after drinking. It was in the eternally-private visions themselves. It was seductive, masturbatory, and forlorn.
Eventually, Ghost water was declared a Schedule I Controlled Substance, and we had to work hard to get any. But we did. There was a guy she knew from a club by the river. I referred to him as Mr. Mustache, because his whole persona seemed to be based on aiming that facial shrub at people. He was more than a little ridiculous, but he always had Ghost Water for us, in little plastic bottles that you might use to carry catchup on a camping trip, and after Melody paid his troll-toll by smiling and laughing and touching his hand, he always gave us a good price.
And it was always worth it. Mundane experiences delivered by Ghost Water were sublime, and painful things were delicious, their discomfort transmuted by the Water's magic into something like the exquisite chemical heat of those Ethiopian lentils.
One night I skied on an icy, hard-packed hillside, my crazily huge belly barely contained by grey ski overalls, and each of the three crunching falls I took gave me hits of pain and cold that were like the ecstasy of Fizzy Lincoln's bone-penetratingly-loud crescendos. I learned what a broken leg felt like, and in the neurotransmitter-soaked hum of a Ghost Water vision it felt so good that the next day I was tempted to actually go take a hammer to my leg. That same night Melody worked in a huge, dim sweatshop, and when her small, brown hand got punctured by the industrial sewing machine she operated, the pain was pleasurable beyond any sex, she told me in the morning.
I didn't exactly become unable to distinguish reality from Ghost Water hallucinations, but in time the two came to have the same weight and solidity in my day-to-day memory. I gave a presentation at work that impressed everyone, then later I was a child swimming beneath clear, green, Pacific waves, staring up at the inverted forest formed by the legs of the swimmers and bodyboarders above. That was my week. Melody and I had a wonderful Saturday at the Natural History Museum, and it was almost as exquisite as the following night, when in a vision I drove a taxi through a busy South American city and crashed it into a parked van. On a cold Friday Melody and I took her cat to the emergency vet, but more importantly I then sat for a long time in a dark prison cell that stank of urine and cigarettes.
Ghost Water transmuted bad into good, but only among its own gifts. The real-life veterinary visit was hell. A $3,500 dollar slam to my credit card to treat feline urinary tract crystals, while Melody went through an emotional shutdown that terrified me. But that Ghost Water time in the cell, wrapped in a thrumming vortex of nauseous stenches and stabbed by sharp shouts and cries of despair from other cells, was a soothing symphony.
And Ghost Water added new layers to experience, just as real experiences build one on another. In August we camped in Pachaug State Forest with her friends, including that writer Tyler, who was handsome in a way that irritated the shit out of me. It was beautiful, but every step in the woods recalled for me an earlier, hallucinated night in a southern forest, insects so loud that my ears seemed to ring with them long after I woke up to my own life. Even the fight we had on that trip, caused by my infantile jealousy, resonated with a shouting match in a mall parking structure I had recently lived through Ghost Water. I told Melody that it seemed that I wasn't any more special to her than any of the other dozens of men who adored her. Am I just part of your fucking harem? I demanded. When she turned away and marched off to grab her stuff out of our tent, I couldn't banish from my mind the Ghost Water image of the young man in the parking garage, who after his own shouting match turned away, got in his beat-up Honda, and drove off.
That night sucked. When Melody told me she would sleep in Sheila's tent, I couldn't stop thinking about how that tent was right next to Tyler's. So in my sleeping bag I drank a hoarded dose of Ghost Water. The long, hallucinatory night I spent thrashing in a hospital bed while blocky, Slavic nurses tried to fix my IV and put a feeding tube in my nose was infinitely preferable to laying awake in the tent, fearful that I would hear Melody's moans floating through the darkness.
It was only a few weeks after that camping trip that she left me. Looking back at it I can't see how she could have done otherwise. I had been willfully misinterpreting everything she said or did, twisting it into proof that she didn't love me. Her missing dinner on my birthday because her friend Gretchen was in the hospital became a fight about whether Tyler would be there or not. It never occurred to me to be a fucking human being and offer to go with her. A painting of Melody by her former art teacher hung in a gallery downtown, and she was excited to bring me down to see it. I said that she was just reminding me how the world loved her and she didn't need me. I didn't even actually believe that. I just pretended to believe it because it fit the stupid construct of fears that I was building around myself like a protective exoskeleton. Even her own Ghost Water visions became parts of my ugly machinery of jealousy. She described dancing at a large, outdoor wedding in China, wanting to share the beauty of it with me. I told her that I got the message: I wasn't someone she could ever marry. I couldn't even argue coherently for that interpretation. It didn't make any more sense to me than it did to Melody, but I clung to it and fought for it. By that time I was just a big, balled fist of pained ego and clenched dread, and she could do no right. So of course she had to leave.
Melody departed on a Tuesday in December, telling me it was over in a note in my mailbox. When she and a friend came over a few days later to pick up her things, she hugged me and I cried. That was our last touch.
Ghost Water without her was not as good. Slightly sour. But it felt like the only thing that was solid enough to anchor me to existence. Some of the hallucinations seemed like things I ought to be doing in real life. Ghost Water had me sitting on damp grass and getting hit in the back of the head by a Frisbee. I awoke to wonder when was the last time I had actually gone to the park. Another dose took me on a long, night bus ride next to a man whose ripe smell was like a hot car full of almost-rotting fruit, and afterward I formed a half-hearted semi-plan to take a real bus ride, maybe to California. Even post-Melody, these Ghost Water mundanities were richer and more energized than my actual life. I felt stupid for enjoying them.
It became very expensive, but I kept doing as much Ghost Water as I could. Without Melody's network of people and her magically charming touch, I paid a lot for each little bottle. Sometimes I only managed one dose a month, but I looked forward to that dose for weeks. In the dry times between doses I found myself spending more and more time reminiscing about past visions. They started to melt around the edges, seeming to imply much larger realities. In March I rode on a train full of children through a muggy summer day in China, and weeks later I felt as though the memory was overlaid with a childhood in Hong Kong and worries about a sick mother. In April I sat in a warm patio at a stroke-rehab hospital and played with my grandchildren, and for several days afterward I felt echo-ish, as though every moment in my life was resonating both with me and with a ghost of an old man just outside of my consciousness. My reactions to things doubled. I saw a Spanish movie that I liked, but it both bored and angered Frank, which was the name I imagined that cluster of old feelings to have. In my May vision I was knocked off my feet in a noisy Eastern European deli, and rode an ambulance to the hospital. Later I wasn't sure whether the ache in my shoulder was from tearing my rotator cuff in high school or from the impact with that deli floor. Had I injured my shoulder in high school, or was that from a different vision?
These Ghost Water non-experiences, tangled as they were becoming, constitute almost the entirety of my memories of that period. In my actual life, I barely functioned, and felt almost nothing. I kept my job only through the generosity of my boss. My power got turned off twice because I failed to pay the bill. My few friends stopped calling, and my dad stopped asking me to come over. I wanted to know how Melody was doing, but her friends wouldn't talk to me. I had the flu for a week and I barely noticed. For a long time I couldn't score any Ghost Water at all, and those weeks are blank.
The months went numbly on. In November I got ahold of a dose through a guy I met at the laundromat. I hadn't had any Ghost Water since July, and by the time I got home with it I was nearly quivering with anticipation. I hoped that it would be an intense experience. Something ecstatically horrible. Maybe even death. If you die in a Ghost Water vision do you really die? I wondered.
Alone in the dark, cold and having eaten no dinner, I drank the Ghost Water.
I was immediately confused, because I recognized the setting. It was that Ethiopian restaurant that we used to visit on special occasions. This was the first time that a Ghost Water hallucination had contained any recognizable element from my own experience. Was this just an ordinary but weirdly lucid dream? No. I knew the feeling of a Ghost Water vision, and this was one. I sat in a booth, and could see the lights of the city outside. Then I moved over to make room as a man slid into the booth next to me. Blonde, with blonde beard-stubble, sensuous lips, and dark lashes. He smiled at me adoringly and kissed me.
It was a nightmare. I tried to wake up. It was Tyler. I was being kissed by that slippery fuck that had always been sniffing around Melody. Why would I dream this? How could Ghost Water take me here? His lips were warm and moist, and his tongue slipped teasingly into my mouth. He wore a biting cologne, and his hair smelled of expensive, citrusy Product. I wanted to scream.
I could see my hand as it reached down and stroked his thigh. It was hers. Melody's hand, here in our booth, in our restaurant, with this smug and horny bastard. I tried to wake up, and as he kissed me again, I finally broke out of the vision and lay awake in my bed, soaked in poisonous sweat, nauseated and panicked, despising the bitter tang of my own homophobia almost as much as I did Tyler.
I spent the next two days trying to track Melody down. I needed to know if that vision reflected reality, and if so, when it had happened. Had it been while we were still together? And I had to know that she was okay. I pretended that I thought she was. That should be the important part.
The phone number I had for her was disconnected. She didn't answer the emails I sent, nor did her friends. None of them would take my calls. Finally I went to the bookstore where Melody had worked. She was not there, but a co-worker was willing to talk with me. She was a fifty-ish woman with artful white streaks in her hair and huge gauges stretching her earlobes.
I'm so sorry, she said. Melody hasn't worked here in months, but we heard about what happened. It's so sad, she told me. Had I known her well? So young. Such a tragic loss.
She kept speaking but my hearing had shut off. My head was vibrating, and I could not tell whether I was crying or not. The woman patted my shoulder and led me to a seat in the coffee shop part of the store, where she sat beside me and spoke in what was probably supposed to be a soothing manner.
She talked about a ruptured brain aneurysm. A sudden thing, while bicycling with her boyfriend. Dead before she hit the pavement, poor thing. The memorial service had been in October.
She said more, but I couldn't make it out. I could feel the weight of my bag hanging from my shoulder, and I could feel the cold of the table on my wrist. Nearby I could see a display of horrible, furry puppets. The coffee smelled rich and warm and made me feel like vomiting.
This could not be real. It had to be a twisted vision. Ghost water plus a high fever, or something. I hoped desperately that the Ghost Water would wear off soon, and I could go back to my life. I would definitely give up the Water if I could just wake up.
But of course I was already awake. This was not Ghost Water. This was the mundane horror of waking life, and I myself was dissolving as I watched it turn into a nightmare. I shook and shook. Eventually I managed to get control of my body, get up, find my balance, and walk out. I made my way home.
I did not give up the Ghost Water. I could not. I drank as much as I could get. Every dose I could score, no matter what I had to do to get it, was a possibility of Melody. Of feeling her. If I could find another drink of Melody, I could bask in it and then move on, I told myself.
Aching need drove me from week to week,from swallow to swallow. I wanted to feel my desperation as passionate and hot, but it was cold. A reptilian narcissism that turned my memories in on themselves. I didn't want to care when the Melody vision had been, but I did care. That question was the only thing on which I could focus, much of the time. Before or after she left? Stupid to care. So stupid.
Just before Christmas I picked up a lonely purse on the subway platform, and walked away with it as the train arrived. I needed money for Ghost Water. I heard a woman shouting behind me, but I neither turned around nor ran. I walked as quickly as I could toward the escalator, losing myself in the mass of ascending commuters. I felt calm, as though passively observing another's life rather than watching my own life disintegrate around me. As I stepped onto the moving stair, something pulled backward on my shoulder. A hand. I didn't know whose, but as I tried to see, my balance failed and I fell hard on the tooth-edged escalator steps, my ankle twisting and my head banging the side wall so hard that I blacked out.
I woke up in my own bed, in my Paris apartment, in sheets that smelled of sex. Lucy had spent the night, I remembered, and we had both taken Ghost Water. My mind was swirling with the layers of memory through which I had been swimming. Visions within a vision, feeling the emotions of some lonely, addicted jackass whose jealousy felt deliciously sharp, like the bite of very spicy mustard. When I told Lucy about it, she told me to lay off for a few days, so that night I went to bed without a drink, and had trouble falling asleep. I felt my skull vibrate with the reverberations of memories of a memory.
I awoke before dawn in my own hammock, the rain thumping rhythmically on the polymer canopy above. My husband snored in the net next to mine. The drink that had given me such an amazing night of bizarre, nested recollections had left my mouth feeling sticky and my throat sore. Even so, I tried to buy another drink from Elos, who peddled anti-radioactives by the main mine entrance, but he had none, so when night came I settled for dark beer, hot peppers and dark hours of sweat and weariness.
The polyps woke me at local noon so that I could watch the transit of the old habitats across the blinding white disc that the icy surface became in the day. I checked my tubes to make sure I had vitamins, radiants, and another dose of the memory water that had made a painfully long night into a deliciously long night, time and hallucination weaving together and sweeping my mind clear of neuroses and doubt. After a daycycle spent composing and versifying for the Empress, I gave up my clothes to the polyps, blew my face and beard clean, and settled in for rest. I infused the dose, and my mouth filled with the taste of tea and fruit as I dived gleefully into memory.
I knew I would wake up soon, but for now: visions and revelations and selves, histories that burn on the way down.
#Unreal #Fiction #Memory #Dreams #Hallucinate #Love #Relationships #Reality
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