By Mary H.K. Choi
Photographs by Elizabeth Renstrom and Alex Thebez
It’s 6:30 and I’m waiting in a dive bar with a mug of hot tea. Peppermint. It’s 20 degrees out and my feet are numb. I feel like a narc and look like one and if the guy I was meeting wasn’t someone with whom I’d already attended two of the same birthday parties, I’m sure there’s no way he’d sell me ecstasy. For the record I refuse to call it “molly.”
I’m sitting in the back. He’s seven minutes late. I think about texting him but I don’t want to seem uncool and it’s not like drug dealers have a reputation for punctuality. Or maybe they do — I wouldn’t know. He’s my age, taller than I remember — better looking — and wearing a navy peacoat. It’s not J.Crew because the collar is different and for some reason it’s all I can think about. We talk about the weather and dark internet. We talk about the late Dr. Alexander Shulgin, godfather of ecstasy, and he calls him Sasha — the sobriquet by which his friends knew him — and I eat it up. As if this somehow makes him more credible.
I am a disgusting yuppie monster and I know this.
He hands me an Altoids mini tin. Altoids mini tins are the best for exactly this. Three pills for $30 each. They were $20 16 years ago — which is the last time I paid for E — and I wonder if it’s just more expensive now or just more expensive for old people. It doesn’t matter. Honestly, I’d be sketched out if the stuff hadn’t taken a 10-buck hike over the last decade and a half. Drugs should cost a lot more than a cocktail — even one from a froufrou hotel. That seems right to me. Heroin seems wrongly cheap these days.
I’ve done heroin exactly once. It was the first drug I’d ever tried. It was 1994. I was 14 and had just gotten good at smoking cigarettes. In my defense I thought it was coke. I was too young and stupid to know that needles weren’t always in the picture and, in any case, I never asked. A gorgeous Brazilian boy with wavy brown hair and big brown eyes handed it to me. Wordlessly. I was living in Hong Kong, and we were in the bathroom of a nightclub that would’ve admitted toddlers. He was the hot new kid at school and rarely spoke. He stared at my friend Jacqueline a lot especially when he thought she wasn’t looking, which is why it was crucial for me to prove I was cooler than she was (it bears mentioning that I was an asshole then, too).
Drugs for snorting are scary — far scarier than even the weed I hadn’t yet smoked — but this was my chance to appear sophisticated, and I took it. There was something in his nod — the tacit recognition that I wouldn’t judge, snitch, or be afraid — that was spellbinding. I didn’t want to ruin the moment. In fact, I remember being relieved he didn’t make a pass at me because I wouldn’t have known what to do. I nodded back — as if it were all going as planned — and took his Strepsils cough drops tin and rolled-up dollar and sniffed.
I don’t recall the effects. I was already plastered on Malibu (because that is what children drink) and stumbling on patent-leather platform Mary Janes that matched my baby-blue kinderwhore ’90s tunic. I remember being excited and freaked out but I don’t remember how I got home. Cell phone cameras didn’t exist yet and my life could’ve wound up very different and very sad but it didn’t. A semester later, the beautiful boy went to rehab in the Philippines. I don’t know what happened to him after that.
Everyone has a drug they like best. For me it’s ecstasy. Mostly because I haven’t done much else. My first time, I was 16. It was the semester before high school graduation and I’d run away from home. For four months I crashed with some friends and about a trillion cockroaches eight stoplights over from my parents. One of my roommates, a stripper we’ll call Jess, got them and we drank them down with diet soda.
She told me I might be sick — and I was — and we rolled for eight hours and talked. We talked about our parents. Mine were strict, overbearing, and generally terrified and she’d recently seen her stepfather at her club and hadn’t told her mom. We forgot to listen to music and smoked half a carton of Camel Wides, wishing they were menthols because they’d feel amazing. We gave each other foot massages with lotion squirted from a Costco trough of Lubriderm. We ran sable makeup brushes across each other’s arms and faces. She looked shiny and clean and pretty.
Instead of senior prom I went to a Caffeine party, ate pills, and watched girls who were dressed like Rainbow Brite hop around to happy hardcore, which sounds like sped-up video-game music. Ecstasy recalls watermelon Blow Pops, windup disposable cameras that nobody ever got developed, and body glitter that smells of Elmer’s glue. Making friends had never been easier. I loved it as an intimacy hack.
Partying felt less loaded than sex or friendship or family and it surprised me how people never seemed to mind as you went from knowing them to adoring them and then unknowing them, all within a six-to-eight-hour span. With ecstasy there is no serotonergic choice but for everyone to love everyone and then stop. It silenced social math. It’s only when those dials in my head go dark that I can have a good time.
My grades in high school had been excellent, but I got a 0.75 GPA my first semester of college and I couldn’t stop crying. Plus, there are few things in life grimmer than an after-after-after party where haggard 40-year-olds shoot up ketamine in the cold light of day to Bad Boy Bill just as you’re coming down. I knew I had to stop and did.
I ditched the JNCOs. And 86’d the P.L.U.R. (that’s Peace Love Unity and Respect if EDM is not your bag). I stopped chewing my mouth raw from gnawing on my tongue piercing. For me it was a clean break. It closed up just as my tongue did when I removed the bar. I remember a month of feeling sad and a constant hunger that drove my freshman 15 to hover at about 20, but I just stopped going to where the fucked-up people were and don’t remember it being hard.
This is because I’m not an addict. I never did drugs alone and doing one drug never made me want to do another. I am not enslaved by neurological demons that govern my executive decision-making and steer me toward protracted involuntary suicide. In this I am stupidly and undeservingly lucky. So, if you’re reading this for advice as to whether you should do drugs or quit them, it’s as useful as Yahoo! Answers, which is to say not at all. Sometimes people do drugs and nothing bad happens, but we rarely talk about it outside the context of recovery or the folly of youth.
I graduated with a 3.7 and have only two regrets from this time. I wished I’d gotten my bearings before fucking off so enthusiastically because I would’ve picked a different major. And I should’ve been nicer to my family.
Otherwise I have nothing but fond memories of pills stamped with 007s or car logos like Mitsubishi, or speckled triangular ones that were referred to as pyramids. Nowadays “molly” is dispensed as powder in baggies or in colored crystals as well as in pressed pills and caplets. In a Vice interview with A$AP Rocky, the rapper Danny Brown describes “molly” crystals he’d taken in Barcelona as looking like “fucking birthstones.”
The pills I’m sold are regular gel caps — about the size of a Benadryl. And to the dealer-dude I voice my concerns about bath salts. He tells me not to worry. Our mutual friends can vouch for this particular batch’s quality and he assures me that he’s tested it himself and cut the ecstasy with zinc so it kicks in faster. He further instructs that it peaks within an hour and he’s also added some things that promises a smooth comedown. As he leaves the bar I wish I’d bought more. He called it MDMA the whole time. This I also take as a good sign.
When you’re a kid, you think you’ll be a certain place in your mid-30s. I presumed I’d be rich because when you’re middle-class with hardworking immigrant parents that’s the whole point. I also thought I’d be married and potentially own a beautiful apartment in New York. Ha ha. What you spend zero time wondering about is whether you’ll still be doing drugs. You naturally assume you’ll grow out of whatever stupidity you dabbled in as a teen. Even up to my 20s I didn’t realize that job-having, non-fuckup grown-ups in their 30s and 40s still smoked weed. Or did ecstasy.
But then I got older and got bored. Saying you’re bored as an adult is truly despicable since it implies that your Maslow’s pyramid is so satisfied, so abundant with shelter, food, health, and love, that you’re driven to idly wishing you liked video games more.
What I want is a vacation from myself. I’ve tried exercise, meditation, sex, and food. I wait for the desire to plan a wedding or have a kid or buy a house and when those things don’t take hold or are plainly untenable, I get my aura read. I open a trillion tabs of internet and drink it in. I gorge on studies about magnets that make you think differently and begin researching the properties of crystals. I don’t think about any of it as self-help because that’s way too pathetic, certainly more than the itchy meh I feel. I want to hurl my brain into outer space; it’s real, real quiet there, the ultimate holiday of feeling small. But because I’m not pregnant and don’t have cancer, I just want to do drugs again.
Drug days are like sick days. You only get so many a year. Or maybe they’re like viable eggs. You’re loaded with them as a kid and then somewhere in your late-30s you have, like, nine left. I don’t believe in much but I believe in the mysticism of drugs. And the sacred places your thoughts go when you recalibrate and feel accurately insignificant. I’m checked out of work, people, and organized religion. I want something, though. I want ecstasy.
“Did you come from the gym?” Suzy is young and likes EDM and ecstasy and is one of the happiest people I know. She’s perfect for time-warp handholding even if she calls it “molly.” I’m wearing black, moisture-wicking compression tights, running socks, a loose-fitting T-shirt, a sports bra, and Air Max sneakers. I’d considered bringing my Nike FuelBand. I look like I’d been running past the club and stopped just to see what the line was about. Suzy is wearing what she wore to work earlier that day and doesn’t care that she has to go to work the next day.
I’d picked the over-18 Skrillex show at the Music Hall of Williamsburg because his brand of percussive brostep is prominently featured on my “cardio mix” and because an “18 and up” Skrillex show is hilarious. Also, the likelihood of seeing anyone I know at the venue is slim. My pill is cradled in the recess between my lip balm and its cap, inside my makeup bag, inside my purse, which is tiny. The security guys skim the bag’s contents with a flashlight. It’s been a while since I did something illegal. I don’t even steal music. He waves me by.
We walk through a hallway to a dark bar. It’s where the coat check and the bathrooms are located and the stage is upstairs. I’m never fully prepared for how young college-aged people appear in real life. I’ve learned that until I’m faced with an actual 18-year-old, I picture them to look at least 24 and am stunned when they don’t. Teenagers, even the big ones, are tiny. Teens, possibly due to how much time they’ve got left to live, also have great reserves of patience for uniquely complicated outfits. I try to remember what it was like to go to a party at 18. What it feels like to plan outfits for a week. I try to embody that headspace that trusts there is a configuration of accessories or even a string of texts that compels someone to fall in love with you. Like cracking a code or activating a launch sequence.
We make our way stage right in a raised area cordoned off by a guardrail. The show is underway — there are three opening acts — and the throbbing crowd is lousy with bros in neon Wayfarers. I keep my distance since I don’t want to get fist-pumped in the face. Suzy and I discreetly take our pills in separate bathroom stalls and return to our spots.
I consider how byzantine I’ve made all of this. Why I’ve chosen to retrace my steps back to wherever ecstasy took me as a child by putting all the external props in place. In an article on “molly” that appeared in The New York Times Style section, Rick Doblin, the founder of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, indicates that drug trends signal social trends. “The rise of ‘molly’ is in tune with how people are feeling emotionally,” he says. “As we move more and more electronic, people are extremely hungry for the opposite.”
At 18, I had a cherry-red Nokia 5110 brick with a stubby black antenna but all I ever used it for was to call people during off-peak hours. Otherwise, the only other amusement was playing with my tongue piercing. Nowadays nobody ever wants for diversion. Or company. And as much as kids allegedly crave the opposite of electronic interfacing, the desire to digitally capture the moment as a keepsake or to evoke jealousy of other kids is very much alive. Most of the 18 and ups at the music hall are on their phones. There are countless phosphorescent rectangles raised for selfies and video to be posted on social media. As if their waking bodies collect experience points for their digital selves. I see a constellation of blue LED lights from vape pens and wonder about what it would be like to do “molly” for the first time now. Way back, ecstasy was great because it allowed you to talk to anyone. Raves were about dancing — music with gripping buildups and crashing breaks that shook your whole body. It was about gossiping in the bathrooms with drag queens and feeling popular even if you were poor. You were smooth, even if socializing sober felt like refueling a jet engine in midair.
I no longer need ecstasy to bolster my confidence. I talk to strangers for a living. But I miss curiosity. I miss crushes. I want to recall my reactions before I was in repeats with every conceivable flavor of human and their predictable disappointments. I think about how when I was young, how exciting things still were. How dazzling new people could be. I remember how much I loved new humans, sizing them up and swallowing them whole. There was a time when the thrill of going out outweighed the joy of canceling on someone at the last minute and ordering takeout on the couch.
Being an adult is to feel hyperfamiliar with everything. When we were young we did drugs because they were exciting and new. New is a lost cause but these days I’d settle for weird. I welcome synthetic curiosity. Whether you’re pulling out your medical marijuana card or doing ayahuasca or dabbling in psilocybin, LSD, or DMT, it’s to other the familiar. I understand Burning Man. I even get “the second weekend of Coachella.” I know why people have children. Seeing yourself in another person must be fun when you’re so over yourself on your own. I wonder if not having kids is what being a vampire feels like. Where you’re just sort of casually unimpressed and stuck there.
Someone tosses me a glowstick. I can’t believe in the last few decades no one has really improved upon the glowstick. Swiveling my head makes me realize that the ecstasy’s kicking in. It took 45 minutes and begins as it always does. Varying patches of skin — behind my neck, the tops of my forearms, my cheeks — feel cool and tingly, like an expensive silent air conditioner — the kind that Dyson would make — is blowing on me in waves. I rub my hands together and the surface of my palms feel unusually soft. I see Suzy swaying with her eyes closed and she looks peaceful if not beatific save that she’s crunching on ice cubes from the bottom of her plastic cup. Her manicure is the most beautiful manicure I have ever seen.
The pill is so clean that it’s clear that all the ecstasy I’ve done in my youth was a mixture of battery acid and rat poison. I don’t feel tweaky. Nor is the pill laced with downers that require I sit — or worse — lie down.
The name “molly” is thought to come from molecule and it’s nifty branding as it goes. Molecule sounds small but complete — whole. It sounds unfucked with. Which, of course, is a big fat lie. As I breathe my whole body sighs. I try not to think too hard because it’s like concentrating on trying to sleep when you have an early morning. For the first time as an adult I feel like I don’t have any homework. I want to check the location tag to see who else is here but I don’t.
When Skrillex comes on just after 11, it’s bedlam. All the boys lose their shirts as they rush the stage. It’s admirably regimented. Four boys man each edge and push errant torsos back into the scrum protecting everyone else. They’re organized like ants. Nobody fights.
I’m really high and feel fantastic about young people. I wonder if I’ve been depressed the whole time I’ve not been this fucked up. I wonder if I’m mourning not being famous. This is a gross thing to wonder about yourself and I’m too much of a pussy to be faced with it in any other moment. I wish there were a Yelp for every drug, with very short reviews. I see a girl whisper to her friends and laugh. I don’t ever feel nauseous and don’t need to vomit. I see a DJ friend with whom I’m friendly on social media. Her newly trimmed bangs look fantastic and I tell her so. She makes fun of me for being there which I take as a sign of affection. She tells me she’s headed out on tour and I’ve never been more proud. She tells me I’m the last person she’d expect to see at a Skrillex show and I take it as a compliment. She tells me that Skrillex is the nicest guy and I believe her. There’s no evidence to the contrary and we’re all just so fucking lucky.
I email emojis to Suzy on my cab ride home and really, really mean each one. Especially the blue swirly. The gum given to me by the Uber driver is the most delicious piece of Cinnamon Trident. Normally, I think cinnamon is about as bullshit as a gum flavor can get if you’re trying to get rid of bad breath, the flavor of creeps and octogenarians. But I think none of this as I ride home with the windows rolled down and the breeze on my face and my mouth vibrating with cinnamon.
The last time I did ecstasy I was 28. It was the summer after the type of breakup where you feel as though someone has died. I was broken and shrunken and living on my friend’s couch, pissing off her cat. One Sunday, I went to look at an apartment with one spare room out of three. When the man opened the door I laughed. His shoulders filled the doorframe. He was empirically hot and brawny in a way that you rarely see in New York. I told him he was way too attractive for me to consider living there.
He told me he had ecstasy. It was an effective rejoinder as these things go. I inspected his books and assessed his plants and then took his drugs. We drank it down with orange juice and projected Jodorowsky movies onto his crown-molded walls. I took off my clothes and we talked about nootropics. His air conditioner was broken and we fucked like it was a contest. He loaned me a book that I returned by mail and I stopped being so sad after that. I was grateful for the experience and altered and never thought I’d do ecstasy again.
The morning after Skrillex, I feel empty and strangely clean. Well-rested. I am hungry, having skipped dinner, and as someone with a tendency to develop a hangover midway through her second glass of wine I immediately think, Whoa, this is way better than alcohol. I have no intention of “popping ‘molly’” on a regular basis but this is a portal I’d open again. Several months later, I do it at a wedding. MDMA at weddings is genius. Typically, I get stressed out in times of intense celebration. People reveal too much of themselves and I’m not a kind person so I’m put off easily. Ecstasy helps make joiners and good sports of all of us. At some point early in the evening my phone died and I didn’t even care.
At the top of the year, I do ecstasy again. It’s a group of about 12 — most of us were at the wedding — and some of us are even parents. Newish ones. It is as grand a New Year’s as I’ve ever had and certainly the most comfortable. We all wear sweats and cozy sweaters and fur hats and Mexican blankets under a desert sky with a mesmerizing fire that is within walking distance of our beds. There is a sauna and a hot tub and we noisily thank our “vibes coordinator” who consistently gets excellent ecstasy from her California person. The next morning we eat tacos and fruit and I quit drinking and smoking weed for a while and then decide not to do those things as frequently anymore. They’re wastes of occasions to get high. As I dial down all the other vices that have become routine and slog through work that can feel as futile as doing the running man underwater, I’ve learned that if you’re lucky, life on its own is dull and lonely.
I’ll likely do ecstasy again in a year. But until then I won’t feel like I’m waiting for something big to happen or cook up smaller awful things to kill time. And this is good. It feels like a kind of harm reduction.
This story was written by Mary H.K. Choi. It was edited by Mark Lotto, fact-checked by Kyla Jones, and copy-edited by Lawrence Levi. Photographs by Elizabeth Renstrom and Alex Thebez for Matter.