By Conor Rochon
Sam was a pharmacy. He drank, ate multi-coloured pills, stuffed white powder into his nose, and punctured his skin with needles— “filled with salvation” as he would say. His face was shrivelled flesh, beaten and abused, hiding behind a messy beard. He had a toothy smile that would creep to his lips at unexpected moments, cutting through the haze of smoke that so often hung around his head. He was a junkie. He was my friend.
I remember when I first met Sam. I hadn’t gone out in weeks, still reeling from loss. When I was eventually coaxed out of the house it resulted in a bender. I was staggering around drunk at a party, toying with the idea that I wasn’t living but haunting, that I had died and was little more than a lost spectre. Then I found Sam, sitting there, smiling at me. He said nothing, but handed me a bottle of whisky. As I drank, he said, “Ever think, maybe we just don’t exist at all?”
It was a novel idea and it was the first time I considered my unreality, but it made as much sense as anything I had come up with. I sat down on the step and handed back the liquor. “Then what is real?” I asked. Sam made no response save to pull long and hard from his bottle and come up smiling.
This was the basis of our friendship: questioning the world around us. Reality had once made sense for Sam, as it had for me. He had a wife and daughter, family man Sam, and he would talk about them often. He didn’t often talk about how the wall came down, but he hinted at an old tragedy. Some event in his past that took away the ones he loved. I suspected the drugs. If nothing else, Sam believed in the drugs.
His reaction to the chemicals he put into his body was the opposite of what you would expect. The drugs held him, they guided his mind through a world he no longer understood. Sober Sam was angry and confused, but he always spoke in glowing terms about the high. This was his stability. Each drug altered his state in a way that was repeatable time and time again. Sam believed in drugs. I didn’t. But in time I came to believe in Sam.
“How are you feeling?” Sam asked. He himself looked blissful. I felt pretty good too.
“I’m all right. Good, actually.” I wasn’t clear on the laundry list of chemicals we had ingested to get to our current state. I left those details to Sam. What I did know was the high had taken hold as a kind of transcendent calm. Right then, I was liquid consciousness adrift in my own body. I was aware of the world but not quite a part of it, as if my personal reality was vibrating at a higher frequency than the world around it. Sam fought to focus his eyes on me, gave up, and stared into the corner of the wall over my shoulder.
“Just wait, this one gets better,” he said.
“Better?” I was worried. Sam had a funny interpretation of what "better" actually was. It could be anything from nightmarish hallucinations to hours of ceaseless high octane energy. He liked to experiment with different concoctions, to find unexplored mental states. For him, drugs weren’t about feeling good so much as they were about feeling something.
Sam must have noticed my panic because he put his hand on my shoulder and said, “You’re going to be fine Ray. I’m not going anywhere. Stay close and you’ll be all right.” His words did calm me. He was my guide through this strange new world of heightened reality, and after knowing each other for more than a year he had never let me down. You could level him with criticism about most aspects of his character, but loyalty is one virtue Sam had in spades.
At some point we started walking. Sam liked to do things while he was high. He tried to pack as much experience into each trip as possible, crashing the world into his warped mindscape. I remember little from the walk. The noise of cars was like thunder as they blurred together in an endless stream along the road. It may have been snowing; soft motes of light floated through yellow beams cast by the streetlights. I had the distinct impression that I should be cold, but wasn’t. At times, especially when we were going downhill, I felt like I was skating, my body gliding along effortlessly a few inches above the ground.
Sam led the way, a few steps ahead of me. He stood tall and walked straight, showing no sign of his inebriation. He was an old pro. Every so often he would turn to me and make a quick visual appraisal of my state, then chuckle and re-focus his energy on walking. He must have been feeling something.
“Where are we going?” I asked.
Sam answered without looking up. “Party. I know a guy who lives near here, should be fun.” He reached out and stopped me by putting his hand on my shoulder. He searched my face, trying to make eye contact. I tried to give it to him but my vision had gone a little swimmy. “You cool Ray?”
If I had said no, the night would have ended there and then. We would have gone back to the apartment to ride out the high in relative safety. I was feeling loopy and I just wanted to go sit in a quiet room but, while standing in the ambient street light with Sam staring into my eyes, I was overcome by a vision of him pulling me into a big wet kiss. I laughed, which Sam took as a signal that I was all good, and we continued our march. That is how I came to the house on Gunwater Drive.
The house was a smallish split-level that gave a keen impression of perfect normality. A vision, pulled straight from the American dream, dropped into the middle of a neighbourhood that was trying hard to forget the dream existed. The house’s tidy beige siding and neat lawn were in stark contrast to the neighbour’s bare cinder block and messy overgrowth. A light accumulation of snow sat on top of a low hedge that ran the perimeter of the lot. It looked like a house, but to me it was the curtain drawn across a stage behind which stood both everything and nothing.
Looking back, the house was benign. A short entry hall with scuffed hardwood floors was the main hub of the building. In the kitchen, stainless steel appliances clashed with 20-year-old linoleum. There was a sitting room with uncomfortable decorative chairs and simple but practical bookshelves. The basement was little more than a threadbare room, unfinished. One of its walls was dominated by a massive television and a single leather loveseat. The backyard featured a prominent oak tree with an old wooden swing, pulled straight from an idyllic country garden. An upstairs hallway was adorned with framed photos of smiling people and provided access to the bathroom and bedrooms.
The party was low-key. Fifteen or 20 people milled about in various states of intoxication. Music was playing, but it wasn’t driving the blood. It was mellow and spherical. The kind of sound that could sit comfortably in the back of your mind. I remember some of the other guests. Two raven-haired girls were watching an old movie in the basement, laughing vacantly and chatting quietly with each other. In the kitchen, a couple of guys were tossing a football back and forth across the room. Every so often they would drop it and I would hear the bounce echo through the house.
Somewhere in the back of my mind it occurred to me that the other guests were much younger than I was. Maybe I should be ashamed to be so far gone. I was definitely failing to present a model of maturity, but soon Sam’s chemicals took over and the pinnacle of my high washed all thoughts of social responsibility from my head.
It passed over me in a sudden flurry of lights and sound, and transformed into a vivid sequence of lucid hallucinations. To this day, I’m still partly convinced that the things I saw didn’t come from my subconscious but rather slipped into the house through hairline cracks in reality. They were beings of perfect potential. They seemed real even while the air around them was thick with otherworldly energy. They sprang fully formed from the river of ideas that flows beneath the skin of the world, infinite in variety. They were everything.
I went to the backyard and was greeted by a clear summer’s day. Blue skies and the warmth of the sun reached down to touch a garden in full bloom. I watched for awhile from the porch as Aquarius watered the garden, pouring sparkling water from her clay pitcher onto a clump of daylilies. Later, I opened the pantry to find a caged service elevator manned by a pale bellhop named Charon who offered to “take me to the other side.” I had the impression that everything was in the house if I cared to look for it, and as I watched giant spiders crawling backwards across the ceiling, some old words came to me: “anything is possible.”
I was in love once. Married young to a young woman, who would leave me and the world far too early. Leukemia claimed her life in two years, leaving me alone and broken at the height of my career. It may sound strange, but the condolences I received in the wake of her death confused me. There was this emphasis on pain. Platitudes like: “We know how painful this must be for you,” and, “we share your pain,” made it seem as if her death was a wound that could heal. Maybe the “pain” metaphor works for many who grieve. Maybe the idea of equating loss with hurt makes a kind of primal sense, but for me it wasn’t as simple as pain, or as complex as grief. For me, Shauna’s death was a line drawn in history, before which the world had a purpose, and after which it didn’t.
I remember sitting with Shauna, waiting for a doctor. When she came, she gave us bad news. She gave us bad news with the kind of direct professionalism that could only spawn from a lifetime of giving bad news. She wasn’t cold or loveless, but she was detached. Before we left the office, the doctor said, “Anything is possible.” She said it without conviction. Ours was a sad story and she already knew how it ended, but I took the words to heart. The words became my mantra as I tried to be the best ally that I could while my wife fought and suffered. Even after she passed, they stuck with me: Anything is possible. But they took on a new meaning. If anything is possible, nothing is important.
I was with Shauna when she stopped breathing, but I didn’t watch her die. I thought I did. In the years that followed her passing I told myself that I had watched my wife die. That by being there when it happened I had somehow shared the experience with her. That I had helped in some small way to bridge her soul into the afterlife. I was wrong. That night, when I found Sam face down on the tile of the bathroom floor, I realized I hadn’t actually seen Shauna die.
I hadn’t been looking for Sam, in fact I wasn’t even aware he had disappeared. I was caught up in the idea of everything. Revelling in the fact that that I could confront any horror I found with rugged indifference. I used the infinity of the visions as a shield to sap them of their weight. A thing must be unique to have meaning. My bleak worldview led to a feeling of superiority. I was as inconsequential as everything else, but at least I knew it.
This feeling came crashing down when I found Sam. His right arm was propped up on the seat of the toilet, a medical band tied tight around it. The rest of his body was in a limp heap on the ground. He wasn’t moving and I knew right away what I was seeing. His head had rolled in the small pool of vomit that spread out under his face, and his hair was matted with sick. I looked for a pulse but knew I wouldn’t find one.
I spent the next few minutes sitting on the floor of the bathroom next to my friend, letting the feeling of everything gradually crumble away. Eventually someone found us and sorted things out; called an ambulance, or maybe the morgue. But finding Sam had died, and in such a small way, stole my will, and I scarcely noticed. I floated on somewhere to sleep off the drugs in my system. I woke sobered by the difference between everything and nothing.