Life in a Skinner Box: A Memoir [Chapter 4.6]

The next day I applied for a job at an Outback Steakhouse one exit up the interstate from the Ruby Tuesday. My plan was to stay in Philly just long enough to earn the money I needed to get out of my apartment lease. I couldn’t bear telling my parents what had happened right away. I was pissed at myself and ashamed for making such foolish decisions and for creating the situation I was in. I felt I needed to fix things a bit first, and have a plan, before I could face anyone back home.

The Outback turned out to be very “cliquey,” but I managed to befriend a girl named Anne who was sweet to everyone. She was the single-mother of a small child and ignored the cliques altogether. After I’d know her about a month, Anne told me her mom was watching her daughter that weekend and she asked if I wanted to hang out. Her brother had given her some psychedelic mushrooms.

So, on Saturday, we spent a few glorious afternoon hours lying on a blanket in front of her apartment, laughing and talking about things like the mystery of leaves and the amazing and benevolent intentions of omnipotent cloud people. Her brother showed up around 7 p.m. and took us to a barbecue. Anne and I slowly explored every room of the host’s house with awe and laughter. After a while, I went off to use the bathroom and caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror. There was a beautiful golden halo around my head. And, wow, I was shocked at how much I looked like my mom just then. I could recognize the qualities we shared to create the resemblance. I visualized each of her siblings and parents and thought I’d identified the particular features that made everyone on her side of the family look related. I closed my eyes and when I opened them, I repeated the process with my dad and his side of the family. The only person my mind was unable to see the shared resemblance in was Grandma Trailer, although I could find a resemblance between her and her son. Suddenly, I felt a deep empathy for my family members. I supposed conjuring them would do that. Somehow, though, it was almost too intimate. I booted everyone out of my mind. That was better. Shifting gears, I went back to Anne, marveling at the power of a brain on psychedelics.

After dinner, about fifteen of us sat around the fire passing a joint. I couldn’t take my eyes off the glowing stick as it floated from person to person around the circle. I followed Anne’s lead, taking a pretty big hit. The intensity of my buzz suddenly shifted and I tuned in to the fact that people were casually passing the tiny, smoking stick around without actually putting it to their mouths. These people were all just pretending to smoke! But why? And why everyone? Were they all in on some secret together? I looked at Anne happily chatting with her brother, not looking high in the least, and got the sinking feeling that, as an outsider, I had been duped. I grieved for my earlier buzz and I hated all these cold strangers. I nonchalantly left the circle and went into the house.

Locating the bathroom, I looked in the mirror again, hoping to resurrect my happier self. But the beautiful golden halo I’d seen around my face earlier that day was gone. I now looked cryptic and gray. I quickly sat down to pee. I sat for what felt like an hour, feeling pain like I had to go, but not going. I visualized the liquid in my bladder and then realized my bladder had deliberately decided not to cooperate with me. I poked it, or where I thought it was, once with my finger. This made it angry. It had been taking a nap and was bothered that I was prodding it. “Piss off you inconsiderate bitch,” it hissed at me. The only way to straighten things out was to go take a nap, as well.

I pulled up my pants and walked toward a spare bedroom. The bed had a lot of junk on it, and I could take a hint. I told the bed I wouldn’t bother it and asked permission to use the space under it. “Whatever,” the bed said, so I slowly got down on all fours, laid on my stomach, rolled to my back, then scooted sideways, inch by inch, until I was staring up at the white mattress and oval-shaped bedsprings. At least the bed had given me a thousand wiggling sheep to count—phew, it must like me after all. I inhaled a deep breath and felt a burning ache in my chest. Were those my lungs? Shit. I could see the faces of a billion tiny bronchioles and they were screaming angrily at me in a very high pitch. “You burned us! You burned us!”

I held my breath, thinking if I didn’t use my lungs, they wouldn’t be hurt further. My head got lighter and lighter until I felt my entire body slowly rise off the ground. I could hear Anne’s beautiful voice searching for me through the atmosphere. Her body was nowhere to be found, but thank goodness she’d sent her voice to find me. It was calling my name and asking people if they’d seen me. I instructed my voice to go talk to Anne’s. I wanted mine to tell hers to go get Anne’s body and bring it to mine.

When her voice got closer, mine cordially said, “Yoooo hoooo, I’m under the bed. We need Anne’s body in here.” Anne’s voice dutifully relayed the message and soon Anne was on all fours peeking under the bed at me. She smiled and held out her hand. A few seconds later, her voice was back in her body and asking me if I was okay. I nodded and wrapped both arms around her right elbow. By the time she dropped me off at my apartment, my bladder was in a better mood and freely let me relieve myself. I avoided looking in the mirror while brushing my teeth, even though I could feel I was coming down a little. Despite choosing my softest, coziest pajamas and cuddling up in bed with a large white teddy bear, I couldn’t shake the thought that I would go crazy if I didn’t get the hell out of Philadelphia—soon.

******

By December, I’d mustered up the courage to tell Dad what had happened and asked him if I could temporarily move back in until I could get a job and find an apartment. He said I could. However, on principle, he felt he had to say that they weren’t helping me financially with moving expenses. Rather than stay another month so I could afford a U-Haul, I decided to sell my furniture, which would also help me absorb the cost of breaking my lease. There was a guy in the kitchen at the Outback who had just found out he’d gotten a girl pregnant. He needed furniture for their new place together. I decided to sell him all of mine, an apartment’s worth, for $300.

When he came to pick it up, he seemed so grateful. Feeling sympathetic for his situation, I threw in towels, supplies, pots/pans, and a practically new vacuum cleaner, hoping that things would be okay for him and his new family. When I stopped by the restaurant the next day to pick up the $300 from him, he’d called in sick. A friend of his bluntly told me that he didn’t have the money, so I shouldn’t expect it. Thankfully, I was already numb and felt deserving of this mess anyway, considering all the opportunities I’d been given and botched up. I cried the long drive home.

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