Asymbolia

“I’ll go first,” I say.

 

keesssshhhhh. hhuahhh-pffhhhhh. kfhuohhhh-KSH. My lungs are painfully turgid with what I have just inhaled but I hold them that way and pass the apparatus to my friend.

 

“I’ll show you what to do,” he says to the girl to his right. He picks up one of the two remaining blue capsules from the little pile – they’re a little bigger than your thumb and coated with blue plastic like a metal M&M. He fits the capsule into what looks like a giant plastic thimble with threading up the inside and screws it onto the corresponding threading on the apparatus: keessshhhhhh. The hollow needle on its neck punctures the pressurized capsule, and the gas leaks into the tank. If the thimble wasn’t there to hold it on the capsule would rocket backwards and its contents would spill out into the atmosphere.

 

            “You have to pant a little bit. Take a deep breath and let it out and then take a little bit of a deeper one – stretch your lungs out. Then exhale until they are really, really really empty. Then start to press the button – just really, really lightly at first, otherwise it’s going to hit you too hard. Once you feel the gas coming out you can press a bit harder – here, watch.”

 

            huah-pffhh. huaahh-ppffffhhhhhh. He seals his lips around the nozzle of the apparatus and depresses the button. kfffhuoohhh-KSHHH. He holds it.

 

            Finally: pffhhhh-huaahh. “Hold it in as long as you can, then take another breath in–“ huaahhhh “–and out–“ pffhhhh “–and take the rest.” kfhuoohh-KSH. pffhhh. “Here, I’ll load it for you.” He grabs the third capsule and screws it on. keeshhhHH. He passes it over.

 

            The girl handles it gingerly. huaahh-pffhhh, she breathes, huaahhh-pffhhhh-huaaaahh. PFFhhhhhh. Her fingers find the button: KFHH–her cheeks puff up and her eyes pop (“Slowly!” says my friend)–khuoooohh-KSSHHHH. She holds it, lets it out.

 

            “So how long until we feel it?”

 

Blue

 

At some point we realized that what we experienced as three-dimensional depth could be represented in two dimensions. Maybe Brunelleschi did us in the day he saw the reflection of a building in a mirror and took a paintbrush to it, tracing its contours onto the glassy surface and creating the picture plane. Maybe it was the camera obscura. You can try it: build a box and poke a tiny hole, and all of the waves of light will come flying through the hole and continue in a straight line to strike the dark surface of the opposite wall. The outside scene, projected on the inside wall, will be rendered flat, creating the illusion of depth. This is a fake window, like the one through which you momentarily mistake your own reflection for a doppelganger in the next room. 

 

The obscura was the disincarnated absolute eye: cold, hard, objective and predictable. Vision became the experience of taking what is outside (static, deducible and geometric, following the rules of perspective) and bringing it in, projecting it in the dark interior of one’s head. Our eyes became apertures, policing the boundary between inside and out. We forgot our bodies as we looked outside of them with a stilling Medusa gaze. World out there, stay still. I am looking at you.

 

The blue capsule contains the rippling sky and the bubbling asphalt. The sky will wiggle and you will have a sense that there is a ceiling up there – like the edges of the space coded into a computer game, where you bump up against an invisible barrier. It’s not out there doing that – it’s on the back of your eyelids. It’s wiggling at you and saying that it is inside of you. And then you register that there is nothing behind the screen: there may or may not be something out there. The window to the outside does not go outside it just goes into the next room. The building does not have a door. You are in here and you are never leaving. If you feel nauseous, do not be alarmed. This is normal.

 

Orange

 

The orange capsule will make you an acolyte of the Church of the First Person Plural. You will become a transparency of yourself and your edges will be permeable and you will not be able to tell your insides from your outsides. The category “you” will no longer really apply. You will become the crowd, and this will not be scary but rather an utter relief. You will not have to police your boundaries. You will not be alone anymore. This is a flash preview of the sweet quiescence of being dead: you won’t have to exert energy to bind the cells of yourself together any longer.

 

A bunch of us take some orange capsules at what sounds like it’s going to be the bacchanalian bash of the year. For nine hours we float in and out of conversation and put our hands on shoulders and move our bodies through the fray. When we close our eyes we see a heat-map of the house – the bodies are a cool blue with a hot orange core. A single tendril of orange stretches out from each one to connect with each other core in the house.

 

Pink

 

I’ve never taken a pink capsule but I know someone who has. A little boy from rural Arkansas took a gun to a party. He had too much to drink and he pulled it on another little boy. The other little boy and his brother beat him to within an inch of his life. The other little boy and his brother spent the night in jail. The other little boy and his brother spent their next decade in a fiendish lawsuit that made national headlines and drove their washed up rockstar of a father to bankruptcy.

 

At some point mid-lawsuit the other little boy took a pink capsule with some buds and things changed. At the party where we all took the orange capsules he pulled me aside. “Margot,” he said, “Need to tell you something.” His face was very close to my face and sweating like you do after an orange capsule. “You need to transfer schools and come to my college,” he said, “and we’re going to take your face off your skull and put it on top of my face and then everything’s going to be alright again.”

 

Green (White)

 

I used to really like the green capsules, and then I was at a party a few years ago and a friend and I took a green one a piece without realizing someone had left the contents of a white capsule in the apparatus. We felt fine initially – the usual softening and blurring around the edges. We had taken them in the backyard so we went back inside and in a hallway she grabbed my arm and said that wasn’t a green one. I looked at her. I thought about it. I decided to move, to walk. Something was rattling in my chest. And then the white – what I didn’t know what the white one at the time – sunk its teeth in. Screaming: the party was screaming at me. I was feverish and cold and breathing shallow. My first thought was that this was one of those rare capsules that is mislabeled and is actually a goldenrod capsule and if you take a goldenrod capsule you’re fucked for life. If you hold a goldenrod capsule in your lungs for longer than thirty seconds – which I had done – then you’re as good as dead. I felt sweat on my face and began to sprint like I could get away from my own bloodstream. For eighteen  the world slid over me like mint jelly down a white-hot baking sheet.

 

Gray

 

If you take a gray capsule with someone you will start to miss them whenever they are not around. You will always want to know where they are. You will make meaningful eye contact across rooms. You will know the timbre of their voice and the particular curve of their posture like the back of your hand. You will settle into their presence like a well-designed armchair.

 

Yellow

 

At the party where we took the orange capsules my friend and I encountered the host, an acquaintance of ours. He was standing on the front porch outside of the noise smoking a cigarette. We chatted for a bit and then he asked if he could interest us in a capsule or two. We told him we were already up on the orange ones. He said no matter: yellow and orange can go well together. We raised our eyebrows at each other and agreed, so he took us down to his basement. There were velvet couches in the large, dimly lit space, all in varying states of decay. He lifted a cushion off one of the couches and brought out a wooden cigar box filled with many-colored capsules. He scooped out three lemony pods and tossed them around. 

 

Inside of the little yellow capsule there was a maze I turned right and I ran and then left and then right but all the walls were just cobalt blue everything was the same tone of cobalt blue. I looked up and there was the big orange sun bearing down on the cobalt of these impossibly smooth walls not like glass but like silky cobalt porcelain so impregnated with blue I could hardly breathe for all the blue radiating off into the air I pressed my bare skin against one of them and it was both hot with the sun and cold with the icy milkiness of retained wind.

 

Lavender

 

            Somewhere in Ohio there is a room which is absolutely silent. They have figured out how to vacuum out noise. No one has ever lasted more than forty minutes in this room, because your ears adjust to the lack of stimulation and you start to hear your organs doing their work. Your heart is a great bass drum. You can hear your liver; you can hear a blink.

 

This works in reverse as well: we must always maintain the appropriate level of stimulation.  Freud believed that our consciousness was there as a filter, a selectively permeable membrane meant to protect us from the constant bombardment of stimuli. Our consciousness – the original camera obscura – has a little pinprick aperture of focus.

 

I did a lot of lavender capsules last year when I was in a long-distance relationship and feeling down and lonely and was looking for some kind of feeling (any kind of feeling).  They really fill you up with sensory input and last for about thirteen seconds. This is the kind of thing you do alone in your room at five am after you’ve run out of cartoons: a little bit sad, a little bit trashy. The contents of lavender capsules stretch their way through the aperture of your mind like a finger in a too-small ring. At least in my mind – which to be fair, may be defective – this aperture works like muscle fibers. When broken it grows tighter to compensate. Less will get through. Do enough lavenders and you may start to live your life with the volume turned way down.

 

Goldenrod

 

If you take a goldenrod capsule you will have to take a goldenrod capsule every hour on the hour for the rest of your life.

 

At 12:30 am every morning they shut down the subway. The transit police have to go down into the bowels of the station and root out everyone squatting down there. Some of the people who don’t have anywhere to go but that station are on the goldenrod capsules. Some of them can’t afford apparatuses anymore and have to puncture the capsule tips with a pen and eject the frigid goldenrod contents straight into their warm lungs. Sometimes by the end of a long day of trains rushing through the station someone has frozen their lungs taking that goldenrod stuff. I’ve seen the transit police carry them out at closing time, sometimes still shaking. I don’t know what they do with the bodies.

 

Silver

 

Don’t try this one. It takes you out of circulation. One capsule will render you mute and solitary: you will say things to other people but the words will feel gutted of meaning. For weeks conversations will be hollow. Hello. How are you? I am not so good. Aw, what’s wrong? I feel lonely. I’m sorry; I am here for you; let me know if you need anything. Thank you (I still feel very alone).

 

If words were cups someone has poked holes in all the bottoms and now they won’t really hold water. You will read books and not be able to parse the sentences. You will know what all the words mean but the process of figuring out the precise denotations and connotations based on context will become fraught with self-doubt and understanding a sentence will come to feel like attempting to smash through a marble wall with your soft body alone.

 

If you are feeling especially overwhelmed by the people around you and take two silver capsules in rapid succession you’ll wake up on an island called Asymbolia. It’s a white marble wasteland of plaster white cube-shaped buildings, crumbling victorians, bougainvilleas and cornflower sea. You’ll wake up there entirely alone. It's a snow-globe world, and if you swim far enough in one direction you'll eventually arrive right back at the same shore. When I was on Asymbolia I got the sense that there were other islands out there: I could see hints of land on the horizon. But any attempt to make it there – rafts, boats, what have you – gets turned around without me realizing how.

 

I couldn’t leave so I decided to start trying to understand the island. I did a lot of walking. I tried to make a map and started to wonder how they ever managed map-making before helicopters, before skyscrapers. Envisioning a place from a bird’s-eye view is very hard from the ground: I have to extrapolate from moving through the space how all the streets fit together. My drafts contradict each other and describe what seem to be different islands entirely. I am always finding new pockets of town: new buildings and alleys seem to spring up when I’m not looking, squeezing their way between old haunts. I can’t tell if I just missed them before.

 

There are some entrances to the subway, which is comprised of dripping pink tunnels with no cars. This is the kind of structure a truck-sized worm with a hundred-year lifespan might burrow: the walls are rough, damp, and fleshy, like the inside of a great lung. You can walk miles on the tracks through the twists and turns and when you come to yet another unnamed station and ascend to the surface you find yourself exiting in the same station you first entered.

 

Soon it seems like the thing that would make sense would be to swim out and tread water until you drown. Maybe the rest of the world is at the bottom of the sea.

 

Somehow you always wash up, alive, on the same shore.

 

I don’t know how I did wind up getting out. It was similar to how sometimes you’re in a dream and you’re watching a television show. You’re holding the remote and sitting on a couch and looking at the screen – you’re watching the show’s characters, identifying with the protagonist and feeling all the feelings the show’s writers wanted you to feel. At some point you stop paying attention to your body. Suddenly you have merged into that protagonist and entered the diegetic flow – your body outside of the screen no longer exists. The mise en scene of your dream has entered the television. The room with the couch and the remote no longer exists. The television no longer exists. You’ve identified with the protagonist so thoroughly that the show itself has become your dream-reality.

 

I guess I was watching a television program on Asymbolia about the mainland and wound up getting sucked in without noticing. Now I can speak again, but the island is still out there somewhere. I am terrified that one day Asymbolia will take me back for keeps. All of the televisions will be gone and I will walk down empty streets which loop back on themselves until I collapse on the pavement. I am still not sure whether I am really back on the mainland or just on the inside of an Asymbolia TV with a bunch of facsimiles of the people I used to know.

 

Black

 

 Hours later at the same party where we took the orange capsules my good friend pulled me aside.

 

“Did you see what he had in that cigar box?” he asked.

 

“No.” I said.

 

“He had like eight black capsules.” I’d never done a black capsule but knew they were really hard to get.

 

“What do they do exactly?” I asked.

 

“I’ve never tried one,” he said. “But apparently you completely dissociate. Like total ecstasy. Ego dissolution. Doesn’t last more than thirty seconds.” His eyes were glowing. I looked at him hard.

 

“We know where the box is,” I said.

 

We went to the basement and we found the cigar box. My friend took two and put them in his pocket. “Let’s not do them here,” he said.

 

We took them back to my place and waited for the orange ones to wear off. It was four or five am. He reached into his pocket and opened his palm to reveal the two shiny black ones. He screwed one into my apparatus. keeeeesssshh. We looked at it.

 

“I’ll go first,” I said. huah-pfhh. huaaah-pffhhhh. huuahhhhhh-PFhhhhhhhhh. kfhuOOOOHH-kshHH. I closed my eyes and held it in. pfffhhhhh.

 

It came on immediately. The beating of my heart moved in a large spiral around me. The large spiral of the beating of my heart moved around and around it, fragmenting outward. The fragments branched into further fragments second by second, and each second frayed so that I could pick it up like a large piece of diamond and hold it and peer through it. Peering through it there was a vibrating in my chest that wound around and around the helix of the spiral of my beating heart and I thought everything is moving around everything else, and then the train of that thought began to spiral around the vibrating winding around the helix and so on. My noticing the train winding around the vibrating caused the spiral-on-spiral of the train, the vibrating, the helix, the spiral, the beating heart to fracture into infinite spirals which inhabited each fraying branch of the seconds as they continued to fray. I thought I would never get out. Time would pull up to the station and it would be the last stop. The train reached its terminus. There was a vibrating in my chest. The multiplicity of gem-like seconds fell and shattered on the floor. My heart beat backwards. I opened my eyes.

 

My friend was looking at me. My eyes were wide. The room was warm and I was not the only one in it. I wanted to tell him about the seconds and my heart and the train, but the words slipped through my fingers like oil. “That was a big one,” I said instead, handing him the apparatus and settling back into the couch. He smiled and raised his eyebrows just so and I knew he knew just what I had meant.