The first time he smoked salvia it didn’t do anything. It was described as 20x, and so he made a mental note to maybe next time buy the stuff marked with the larger numbers, despite the protests of his friends, who begged him, please, don’t turn your back on real drugs.
The second attempt was a different story. He took a series of hits, each held in for longer than felt natural and, in no time, felt himself taken aback by a warmth in his ears, which coincided with a ringing, some muscular twitching, and pressure in his joints. Finally, he thought. He closed his eyes and shook his head until the feeling of movement became disconnected from the behavior itself.
He opened his eyes to find a slit of pinkish purple warbling its way open. It presented itself like a gift to him, one that had taken advantage of the stillness in time to incubate, to grow.
Ooh, portal, he thought, as the slit yawned and swelled like an envelope of plasticized rubber melting in the heat of some foreign sun, then fell open, completely.
He peered in. There was a world on the other side and, he could see that, unlike his dungeon of an apartment, this world was bright. There was real natural light over there. Lots of it. Classrooms in his memory were almost always lit by fluorescent lights that buzzed like insects and made the room feel dead. This classroom was nothing like that. This classroom was most definitely alive.
The smiles of the students — about twenty grade schoolers — were wide, and enthusiastic. They wore uniforms that consisted of little white Bermuda shorts and little white button-up shirts.
The room radiated with a chocolate-and-China effect that played the white classroom walls against the dark brown skin of the students and their teacher, who wore the same white Bermuda shorts and white button-up shirt that his charges wore, only the grown-up version. Behind them, through glassless windows, he could see white sand, along which the shadows of palm trees fell. He sensed the Caribbean.
The kids burbled with an energy that couldn’t be quieted, though the teacher attempted to shush them with hand gestures and gentle admonishments. This calmed their tittering just long enough for him to notice that the teacher was trying to get them to recite something, to perform something. Perhaps for him.
Me? he thought, as he pushed his hair back into place with his hands, realizing that they were seeing him, too; though this also meant that they could see the rest of him, splayed out on a bean bag, in boxer shorts and a wife-beater. He closed his thighs, mortified, as this also meant that the water bong between his legs was the only thing between him and the indignity of a classroom full of kids in the Caribbean breaking up in hysterics because his balls had fallen out of his shorts.
Before he could do anything else, the slit contracted and faded. The portal was closed.
The next time he smoked salvia was that 50x stuff. He pointed to it in the case, and that Armenian guy that ran the head shop with his sons replied ah, good choice, chief. That one, fuck you up good.
Earlier, he’d told his friends about the classroom and its teacher. They didn’t seem that impressed. In fact, they laughed at the idea that he had a hallucination in his apartment that was real enough for him to feel his privacy had been invaded, but that was it. They didn’t ask him how he felt about it. And they didn’t care that he seemed to think this experience was real. It was like the only two words that mattered in his whole explanation were hallucination, and funny. This made him feel stupid for even sticking his neck out about it at all.
He exhaled. The portal yawned open again, blessing the dankness of his apartment with that warm, white light as that slit of pinkish purple fell open. Inside was a view of the classroom, just like before, only empty. Twenty desks sat in ordered rows, all absent of their owners.
The children were missing.
He swallowed, peered through the glassless windows on those white walls, and sighed. They were probably out there, on the beach somewhere, maybe doing something involving coconuts or diving. Something that didn’t involve interacting with him.
The teacher, meanwhile, leaned against one of the little desks, stumbling over some of the bigger English words (he got the feeling that their native language over there was French). Much like last time, the teacher appeared to be presenting something.
As the presentation went on, it occurred to him that maybe the teacher couldn’t actually see him. Not all the way. The beach, with the long shadows of the palm trees and the gentle wear on the desks — he could see all this, plain as day. But the cracks in the wall of his apartment, its broken, shittily-drawn blinds and the half-functioning single-serving espresso maker — was this coming across to the teacher?
It also became apparent to him that the teacher had been reading this whole time, as a newscaster would. Like from cue cards, or a whiteboard; maybe even a teleprompter or flat screen, though he couldn’t imagine an operation like this could afford equipment like that. They didn’t even have glass on their windows, much less bars. What kind of school doesn’t have bars on their windows?
It was strange, he thought, how people could become ideas — just ideas — and no longer people. This notion sat at the heart of a certain sadness, whose reasons for existence were unclear. It was a murky, muddled feeling, and it lingered, like morning breath, long after the portal closed. This time, for good.
This sadness faded with time, as did his memory of the classroom, those kids,and their teacher. Like so many unread subject lines in a lonely news feed, it all went away; evaporated. Gone. And he never said anything else about it to his friends, as that was one lesson he’d taken away from the whole sorry experience: never expect honest sharing to result in anything more than condescension, judgement, and scorn.
In fall, he got a pile of money together and attended one of those coding camps, which he’d understood would open up opportunities in the information/technological careers of the future. Through this, he found that remaining ignorant of How Things Work might be harder to live with than the alternative, which is knowing how every part of a machine functions, even when that machine isn’t working well at all. And with that, the single-serving espresso maker in his apartment was fixed.
Time passed. That single-serving espresso maker came to be replaced by a two-spigot brushed steel monstrosity that he bought at the fancy kitchen store by the farmer’s market. The gesture was part of a larger bid to appeal to the sensibilities of his new peers at the startup who demonstrated, through their choice in artisan furniture, boutique fashions, and custom confections, never turn your back on good taste.
A world of friction-free flavors awaited him as his life went from slack to highly tuned. Conversely, his powers of reasoning went from dim to sharp as a mantis’ praying hands. Distasteful things, dysfunctional people, insufficiently amusing experiences — these items were regarded as suboptimal. Fixable. And if they weren’t, they became recyclable.
It was in this way that sadness of any kind became replaced by a muddled sense of head-shaking concern, a feeling usually reserved for the people in medical gowns and garbage-clothing who haunt the area behind the food trucks near his brunch spot. People who don’t know whether they’re coming or going. Ghosts, unaware they exist only as problem sets, awaiting the arrival of the right engineer for the job, that nimble-minded, benevolent disrupter who — undoubtedly — has the best interests of the world in mind when seeking to optimize it.
Every now and again his mind wanders. He imagines the occupants of that classroom are still out there, somewhere. Manifesting to lone stoners, to people in dream states who may be vulnerable to the kind of charity-mugging those kids and their teacher seemed to excel at. Hustling for some thing or another. Petitioning power structures; begging for change, maybe even in front of a grocery store, somewhere — sign my petition, give to my cause, blah blah blah.
But every now and again, when he’s feeling more or less charitable, he imagines that maybe — just maybe — they’ve found whatever it was they were looking for. And maybe that classroom of theirs finally got some bars on the windows.