I press the salvia into the bowl and snap open the butane lighter.
“Here we go.”
Smoke billows into the bong, thick and white – a bigger hit than intended. I cough out the burn. The world goes quiet, waiting for something to happen, but there’s nothing. Just a quiet stillness. Then an almost imperceptible ripple that slides through reality. I lean back in anticipation and fall through the floorboards.
Salvia Divinorum (diviner’s sage) grows in the isolated Sierra Mazateca cloud forest in Oaxaca, Mexico. It is the most potent naturally-occurring psychoactive compound known, and has been used for centuries by the indigenous Mazatec shamans to achieve visionary states of consciousness during spiritual healing sessions. It’s legal in most countries, non-toxic, and non-addictive. This was the enhanced 20x leaf concentrate, guaranteed to give one hell of a good ride.
Smoking salvia was Kim’s idea. Kim is a college professor who teaches the cultural history of psychedelics and psychosis. I’ve known her since grad school back in Austin where she was a small Armenian spitfire with a gold nose ring in a beat up leather jacket who practiced martial arts and body modification. Kim lives in Brooklyn with her partner Jason, a rugged rope-access technician (and self-proclaimed dirt-bagger) who hangs off the sides of skyscrapers to do work no one else will. Kim’s ex- Jesse (and our mutual friend) is also there, an aristocratic, articulate software engineer and committed Buddhist who’s pale and thin with a slight beard, shaved head, and silver hoop in his right ear.
Kim hosts regular events at her Park Slope brownstone, bathed in candlelight and surrounded by towering shelves of books and artifacts accumulated over the years – an authentic Persian rug, a 1920s bronze ashtray, a naked Japanese baby smiling on her ceramic stomach, an intact tumbleweed mailed by a friend from the Southwest, feathers, paintings, black and white erotica, dismembered mannequin parts, feather boas, and a plush reddish-black cat named Rosie.
Jessie leads us through a Buddhist prayer meditation. Kim has smoked salvia before, so she goes first. She sucks the bong and coughs loudly before a look of surprise and joy spreads across her face.
“Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ. Oh my god. I… I forgot. I had totally forgotten about this. Oh my god, I’ve been here before. Jesus Christ. It’s… it’s plastic. It’s all so plastic, Jesus Christ!”
She giggles uncontrollably (Kim rarely giggles) and holds her hands in the air, touching something we can’t see. It’s the happiest I’ve ever seen her. We chuckle, smitten with the idea that she’s broken through to some cosmic joke of our ludicrous existence. She kneels with her head on a futon, laughing until she’s breathless. As she comes down, she asks nervously if we can still feel her and Jesse places a gentle hand on her back.
“Yes, yes! That’s good.”
Jesse goes next. He adds a modest amount of salvia to the chamber and assumes a meditation pose. I light the bowl, while he inhales. He’s intrigued. It washes over him and he laughs, catching and recomposing himself, struggling to maintain. This is very Jesse. Controlled. Measured. Always executing his diction and movements as precisely as a dancer.
“I recognize that you’re all my friends, but I can’t… I can’t get the timeline right.”
He laughs again, struggling to hold on, to not give up too much of himself. It wears off quickly and he’s disappointed he didn’t have a more enlightening experience, but easily shrugs it off.
Jason smokes next and spends ten minutes laughing maniacally about orange blobs. A forced cackle (if I didn’t know better) that makes me increasingly uncomfortable. It comes from deep inside, as if it’s been trapped there his whole life. As the salvia wears off, the comedy of the orange blobs recedes into the ether.
It’s my turn. I pack the bong and hold out the butane lighter. They lean in, staring intently.
“Guys, a little space?”
They retreat, smiling shyly. We’re all a little nervous. This is the first psychedelic drug we’ve ever done together.
It comes at me in a rush. The scene of them sitting there skips like an old film projector. There is no matter. No time. The world stripped away with a sick sensation of familiarity. I’ve been here before. I know this nothing place. I know it better than anything I’ve ever known. Better than any memory I’ve ever had. This was the place before life. That elemental place, more me than I ever was. The gravity of the universe crushes me. There are no words to describe the scale.
Then I see the machines. Enormous platforms, miles high, wheels in bright primary colors. Red and yellow and blue with infinite spines shooting into infinity, filling the sky. I’m pressed flat against the forest of spines, flattened into two dimensions by grinding machines that scream static in endless loops. My mother (or some sensation of her) is there, wrapped around me, shielding me. Casualties of an unknowing, unforgiving, machine. This was my fault. I brought us back. I took it all for granted. I had forgotten about this place. Why? Why did I leave?
Glimpses of my former life skip into focus again as the broken projector springs back to life. The porcelain baby smiles sweetly. Fragments of Kim stare at me in concern before I hurtle toward the machines again. There is no going back. I made this choice. I am no longer me. I am gone. Shit out of some interdimensional orifice of the universe. They don’t know. They’ll never know. They’re back there thinking I’ve lost my goddamned mind. How blessed they are in their ignorance. I’m in the place where the insane people go.
Suddenly, I can see again. My friends look concerned.
“Oh my god, we’re so small. You can’t imagine. It’s so fucking tough, so tough! You don’t know, You couldn’t know.”
I may make it back with some semblance of sanity.
“Oh, shit. The salvia. It was the salvia. Thank god. I had totally forgotten about all of this. Like it didn’t even exist. Even you guys. It was all bullshit. Damn. Okay, I’m remembering now. Oh, Jesus.”
“It’s alright, just breathe. Relax. It’s okay.”
“Don’t ever let me do that again. Do you hear me? Never! There were these… these machines. Like giant blocks. With spines. No, wait. They were… oh shit.”
I’ve seen those shapes before, just not from from that perspective. They were the Bristle Blocks I played with as a child. Small plastic blocks in primary colors covered in spines to interlock and construct larger, more complex shapes. Why Bristle Blocks? I’m almost all back now, but I remember everything. Especially the haunting familiarity. The reality that made any prior sensation irrelevant. I’m not what I was before.
I leave Kim’s apartment empty. I had hoped for something transformational. Past-life visions. Communion with departed souls. Some great insight into myself. Instead, I got something more sickeningly real than I ever imagined. What if that was the true nature of reality? What if what’s hiding in Plato’s cave is simply unadulterated anguish?
For weeks I wake up with panic attacks. The memory so strong it threatens to transport me back against my will. I try not to dwell on my insignificance, but I also don’t want to forget. To lapse back into the easy ignorance of everyday slumber. It’s enough to appreciate the illusion. Each intake of breath. The regular wrinkle of my heart. The sensation of floating down the street, as if towards some predetermined destination. These people all around who know nothing of this. The skin I slide into my own every evening. Such privileges I had never before appreciated.
Chris Jennings is an author and technologist in the San Francisco Bay Area who has published creative non-fiction in the journals daCunha and Hinterland. He has contributed chapters to Learning Engineering for Online Education (Routledge, 2018) and The Radical Transformation of Teaching & Learning (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019), and written articles for E-learn Magazine and Learning Solutions Magazine. Jennings has a bachelor’s degree in Creative Writing, a Masters degree in American Studies from The University of Texas, and a Masters in Interactive Telecommunications from New York University. In addition to writing, Chris works full-time at Google where he designs free online learning programs and delivery platforms used by over a million people worldwide.