Poorly Labeled Luxury Chocolate

It is Saturday. Like too many days this December, I have skipped breakfast and had too light and too late a lunch. I’m meeting friends for dinner in the city, but my stomach is already making demands, and who knows how long it will take to cross the bridge, get seated, and eat? So I opt for a snack. 

I threw a little party at my house on Wednesday, and there were leftovers. Someone left the last part of a chocolate bar. It was in a blue aluminum foil wrap inside unbleached matte cardstock. I don’t recognize the logo. Its brassy linework is so baroque it’s hardly legible. I tear open the foil and crack it along pre-measured lines, an orderly grid of rectangles. The first piece is oddly mild, creamy milk chocolate oversweetened by the fine grit of coconut sugar. It doesn’t quite live up to the promise of the wrapper, but it’ll do. I wolf down the rest. 

Then my friend Kathryn arrives. We are carpooling to the city. I hug her hello, slug back some water, and we embark. I’m driving. The stick shift feels comfortable in my hand. 

It’s not until we hit the bridge that something begins to feel wrong.

First, my stomach sinks. It’s like the feeling you get after eating meat that’s a little off, a warning of things to come. Surely the chocolate wasn’t bad. Am I sick? How low is my blood sugar anyway? Do those brake lights always twinkle so aggressively? I yawn repeatedly. I must really need to eat. Another slug of water from my water bottle. 

Ahead of me is an interminable array of brake lights, the twilight traffic of the Bay Bridge. It is the same every Saturday, an hour-long ordeal. I recall the disturbing words of an old urban planner: you don’t get stuck in traffic, you become it. We are the traffic. I keep my hand on the stick shift, holding us uncomfortably between second and third gear. We cannot move naturally. Instead we creep forward in lurching pulses, never moving fast enough to relax, nor slow enough to stop. 

Meanwhile, the sinking feeling in my stomach starts washing through me in waves. It isn’t quite nausea, but it is similarly heavy and inevitable, a harbinger of something worse. I feel the fearful alarm of a deep and ancient nerve long undisturbed, a reptilian reflex that quiets me. Blood leaves my head. My eyes defocus, struggling to following the motion of the cars in front of me. It becomes difficult to attend to the road ahead. Lights refuse to resolve into shapes. I concentrate as hard as I can, remembering that I’m piloting a two-ton steel box. At least two lives ride on my ability to keep translationg visual stimuli into the appropriate manipulation of gas, gearshift, brake, and clutch, all at the same time. But the threat of mortality fails to keep me on task. Linear thought has become impossible. I am a passenger in my own body. It’s all I can do to delegate the job to my hands and feet. They’ve done this many times before, they’ll just have to do it without the aid of my conscious mind. With my eyes glazed over, I watch helplessly and see that my body—thank goodness—is keeping speed steady and wheel straight.

It occurs to me I should clue in my passenger. I tell Kathryn I think I may be high, and I don’t know the drug or the dosage. To her immense credit, she remains calm and light. She’s had drugs before, she gets it. She offers to drive. This registers as an excellent idea. I check my phone: twelve minutes until we hit the offramp. No shoulder to stop on. We’ll have to gut it out until then.

The brake lights reach new levels of kaleidoscopic twinkle as I weather another wave of stomach churn. For a moment my entire field of vision slides to the left. That deep and ancient nerve twangs louder, robbing me of blood pressure and leaving me dizzy. I wonder if I will pass out. A couple seconds later, my brain fully rejoins my body in the act of driving. I have been granted a wave of lucidity. I ease out of my trance state and focus. Just one more exit.

We hit the offramp. My teeth are vibrating in my skull. A wordless song rings in my brain. The muscle under my jaw, short and tight from long hours of bed-slouched laptop typing, begins to un-knot itself. An atrophied part of my motor cortex is now wakeful, and it is giving me the penny tour of my muscular system. It might be pleasant if I wasn’t trapped in a steel cage trying not to kill anybody.

Three stop lights and two lane changes later, I pull over. Kathryn takes the wheel. By a tremendous stroke of luck, she knows how to drive stick shift. But the prospect of driving stick for the first time in years in a friend’s car uphill in stop-and-go San Francisco traffic is, she says, a little stressful. You’ll do great, I say. She does. 

I navigate us past Buena Vista Hill without incident. Everything I say is calm and assuring. Only one of my sentences is total nonsense. We find improbably good parking, not even requiring us to shift into reverse. We give the white van ahead of us a friendly love tap, flip the parking brake up, and get the fuck out of the car.

Finally I can exhale.

It is immensely relieving to no longer feel the walls of my car closing in, far too small a box to weather the diaphragmatic pressure of space breathing around me. On the sidewalk there are trees, bushes, open space to wander and relax. 

At no point do I consider changing plans. I left my sense of agency on the Bay Bridge and am now resigned to my fate. All I know is that I am desperate to eat something. It’s two blocks to the dinner spot, Beit Rima. I am unexcited to enter a brightly-lit fast casual restaurant filled with chatty patrons and hard glossy surfaces, but that is where the food is, so that’s where we go. 

We meet up with Misha outside. He is early, which I appreciate. I inform him that I have accidentally become mega high. He is not sure whether I am joking about the high part, the accident part, both, or neither, but I am so deadpan about it that he decides to just roll with it. More actionable is my urging that I must eat immediately. A couple friends roll up minutes later, and we seat ourselves at a long table. I am tucked all the way on the inside, squished into a tight corner with a little throw pillow to soothe me. I cannot tell if I am hiding or trapped.

Reading the menu is challenging. The words stay put, but my eyes do not. It is difficult to care about letters right now. I can’t eat them, and they don’t feel like anything. Plus they are too small. A lot of things feel too small right now. Two friends more capable than I decide to just get every other item on the menu, except for the proteins. I urge them to get the poof bread, which is this restaurant’s trademark. 

Misha and I have a dialogue. He often doesn’t know how to respond when I’m around. We’re both highly verbal people, and something about me brings out the instigator in him. I cannot help responding to it with a mix of poking and doging, which is challenging for him to read. All this can be a lot even when I’m sober, and right now I am not sober. Misha, never one to avoid an elephant in the room, says, “I always feel like messing with you, but right now it feels like maybe I shouldn’t mess with you. Should I not mess with you?”

I gather the parts of my brain capable of seriousness and tell him yes, he should not mess with me. If there is ever a time not to mess with me, it’s right now. As in if he does mess with me, we are not friends. So don’t. And he doesn’t.

Meanwhile two more people I don’t know arrive, a soft-spoken guy and his considerate friend and partner. She groks the situation and is puzzled. Normally psychedelics make it hard to eat. Could it be something else? She offers me some ginger. Her skeptical face triggers my latent paranoia, occasionally present while sober but far more accessible in an altered state, that my thoughts and feelings are entirely unintelligible, and that my lack of lucidity is causing other people to cater to me like a child. This is unbearable. 

I remember this feeling from the one other time I’ve been high. I’ve never done mushrooms before—in fact, just a couple weeks before I’d gotten mildly buzzed off weed for the first time—but many years ago I did an acid trip with my partner. She was gentle and patient, but my fear of my own difference from the world, from her, was overwhelming. I believed I was feeling things she could not see and I could not explain, and that difference was intolerably lonely. It felt like I was reliving my separation from the church as a teenager. When I told my Christian friends I no longer believed in God a switch flipped behind their eyes, especially the adults. Before we were on the same team. Now they worried for me. Maybe even pitied me.

Fortunately, in this moment I remember that words are a trap and the brain is capable of constructing illusory but pernicious prisons entirely by accident, so I hit the eject button on that train of thought as quickly as possible. I gather my sobriety once more to say an entirely lucid sentence: whatever’s in me right now, I’m pretty sure that getting something into my stomach will slow it down. Plus I’m sure some of this distress is low blood sugar.

This is an almost concerningly sober-sounding statement to Misha, who is still trying to figure out whether and what I am joking about. Apparently this is something only a sober person would say. Meanwhile the lights in the restaurant seem to keep getting brighter, though every time I flick my eyes up to check on them they look the same.

Finally, food comes.

We have muhammara, hummus, baba ghanoush, ful, the poof bread, a couple orders of pita bread, olives, lebneh, and mixed pickles. A fine mezze. I immediately attack the meal. Some of the flavors are shockingly underwhelming. The first dip I try looks like hummus, but tastes exactly like refried beans. It has to be explained to me that this is ful, a puree of stewed fava beans. 

I then turn to the muhammara, anticipating the sweet and sour taste of pomegranate sauce mixed with the nuttiness of roasted walnuts and red bell peppers. Instead it just tastes like sweetened hummus. This is a great sadness. I recall the muhammara of my ex-girlfriend Rahaf, a recipe she learned from her mother in Syria, a painstaking process of perfectly roasting everything before blending, tasting along the way. Only certain pomegranate sauces would do, she’d tried them all and many of them didn’t taste right. God, could she cook. And the way she made kibbeh, those elegantly scored little diamonds of beef and buckwheat, such nuanced textures, crisp and grainy but with a soft and sumptuous mouthfeel, never dry. Whenever I went to a Middle Eastern restaurant with her and her friends, the entire discussion would focus on the fine differences of technique and preference between the restaurant’s food and how each of the women prepare the same thing at home. No restaurant makes knafeh properly, not that I’ve tried. It’s the softness of the cheese that makes it so good, and you can’t overdo the rosewater. I should make some knafeh. I so rarely cook with filo dough, though.

I reminisce about this to the table as I am fully peaking.

Fortunately, my theory proves correct. The more I fill my belly, the more normal I feel. My teeth are no longer tingly, and I feel almost no risk of passing out. I eat everything in front of me and a little that isn’t. I’m trying to pace myself so as not to be piggish or greedy, but I am still compelled to eat more and more to make up for a day, a week, a lifetime of undereating in times of difficulty or of isolation. I know in my bones that when I eat with friends, I am not alone. Everybody eats. Everyone understands eating. That is an experience we can share.

With my feet thus planted firmly on the ground and my body no longer threatening to dissolve and evaporate into glittering stardust, I feel better. My heart rate stabilizes. My muscles quiet down. We pay and leave, and taking a walk outside is the exact right thing to do. As I discuss my situation with the group, I become convinced that maybe this whole thing was just a weed edible. Weed can get you pretty high, right? I’ve never really gotten high on weed. Maybe I’m extra sensitive. Maybe there’s even some placebo effect at work here. My dad recently told me he has a special gene marker which makes you more susceptible to the placebo effect. His own paranoias, far stronger than mine, are surely born from his emotional permeability, a quality which I share.

Regardless, by the time we are in line waiting to get into “The Longest Night,” a ritual circus celebrating the winter solstice hosted by the Circus Center, I am feeling pretty much like a standard-issue human being. I left the peak scattered among little bowls of dip. We are now in a new place with new people, lower lights, and an entirely different vibe. The energy here is an even mix of theater kid, Hot Topic, closet goths glad to let their hair down, and Portland. The show is amazing. The silvery flash of juggling clubs is a little more compelling than it normally would be, an indicator that my brain is still operating a few degrees off-center, but whatever’s going on in my head only deepens my appreciation of the show. It’s incredibly gratifying to have full access to my usual verbal and mental acuity, a stable and grounded post-meal body feel, and the drug-enhanced ability to traverse spiderwebs of thought into unusual locations. This, to me, is the appeal of this stuff. The sensory experience was a little overwhelming, but thinking new, previously inaccessible thoughts is a fun and familiar frontier. 

The movement of the performers feels like calligraphy. They swing their props and pose their bodies, in one moment looking fluid and animal, the next moment strict and analytical. I can see the tension of their bodies and minds in pursuit of strength, grace, and clarity. The show is full of this: the sword dancers, moving in precise synchronicity, swinging their scimitars in slow and deliberate shapes; the Sufi whirler, turning in an endless circle, letting their hands rise and fall naturally, witnessed by a single kneeling woman with a candle; the juggler, whose wind-up-doll bit is a little unconvincing, but who more than makes up for it with spectacular patterns that he catches and punctuates with a decisive flourish of a club, the narrow confines of his mechanical perfection punctuated by a brief and muscularnmoment of animal joy; and the acrobat, who places a single hand on her aerial hoop, spins to build momentum, then is raised into the air by a crane in a standing posture, as if a subway rider suddenly began to levitate. An impossible act.

It’s beautiful. I look backwards in time. Behind the lycra and eyeshadow I see teens in the theater, earnest and awkward, with their Invader Zim buttons and Anne Rice books. They’ve grown up now, given their younger selves a stage to share together. Through an uncanny mixture of discipline and self-acceptance, their performances allude to steely perfection while making room for their own goofy strangeness. They are not just contortionists, they are escape artists. What could have been cringe instead is virtuosic.

I frantically take notes to this effect in my phone, worried that as the drugs wear off my delicate web of insights will disappear forever and stymie the personal growth I desperately long for. If properly captured, maybe these are the insights that will unlock my creative practice. Maybe they’ll help me find balance in love, enable me to lose myself in a connection without burning out or running away. I shield and dim my phone screen, worried it will distract the people around me, but fortunately my group is lodged in the corner by the mixing desk, where the tech crew shouts and hisses and yodels to support their friends. What a show.

Then it’s over. I feel more myself now. We loiter and chat, then leave. 

I drive Kathryn home, lock the door behind me, and rush upstairs to check the empty package. What on earth did I eat? The ingredients are in code: it says it contains cordyceps, not psilocybin, but the QR code link takes me to a bunch of psilocybin advocacy websites. Clearly these were magic mushrooms. I consult the dosage diagram. Six squares, by my recollection. The second-highest dosage indicated, marked with a rocket ship. The next step up is a Grateful Dead skull.

I didn’t buy the ticket, but I did take the ride.

An okay chocolate bar, but they should dial back the coconut sugar.