Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York
It was gray out. The sky was darkening all around as we drove through a wasteland of urban sprawl shopping malls just outside of San Antonio. We were heading back home to Austin after another event – setting up lights for a young New York couple’s million dollar wedding reception at a Spanish Mission in the Hill Country of Texas. Seven straight days of work in the Texas heat. My body and head were heavy with fatigue. Storm clouds threatened on the horizon as Jimmy drove the white sedan, pushing the pedal and breaking the tired silence between us, “You ever heard of ayahuasca Corey?”
“No. Why? What is it?” I said, staring blankly into the distance.
Somber looking cars passed by in the opposite direction in a steady stream as traffic cleared ahead of us.
“It’s a South American hallucinogen used in shamanistic ceremonies. They call it ‘the vine of the soul’. I tried it a little while ago in Austin with a group of people and a shaman who were all in white robes in someone’s house on the south side of town. I met one of the guys at a bar one night. The stuff made me puke twice, then brought up a bunch of issues with me and my dad that I realized I needed to resolve. I don’t know why I thought of it just now. And I know that I just recently met you, but the thought that you should try it, just came to me,” he said as the rain started falling. “Somethin’ tells me you’d appreciate it.” I stared out the wet streaked window, fading into sleep, thinking of the French girl, Marie, from the New York design crew who I’d met on the job that week. I thought of the intensity of her eyes, and how I didn’t seem to choose the women that I fell for in my life, they just seemed to appear. And we barreled down the highway into the approaching darkness.
“Ayahuasca, huh?” I said before passing out.
A few days later Asa, my half Indian, fully crazy friend, came bounding up the stairs and across the landing to my second floor apartment.
“I’m going too!” he yelled before he even got to my open door. “Book me a goddamn ticket!” He stepped into my apartment wearing his uniform of black shoes, shorts and a gonzo t-shirt, his unruly black hair flailing behind him. “We were supposed to go on a fuckin’ road trip with the extra money from these last two jobs. And now you’re chasin’ some damn French woman to New York fuckin’ city. Jesus! Okay. But you’re not leavin’ me. I gotta woman there too. I’m goin’!”
“You sure?” I asked as he eyed me wildly, blocking the sun from my doorway.
“Yeah, I’m sure. You’re gonna need help on this one. She’s a French New Yorker. A horrible combination for a woman. You’re goin’ into the lion’s den on this one. You need backup. Plus, I wanna see Stephanie. Buy the goddamn tickets and I’ll pay you back! I don’t have a credit card.”
A week later I was standing in Marie’s apartment, a fourth floor, four room railcar walkup with turquoise walls not far from the Williamsburg Bridge. She lived in a neighborhood where the hipsters melded with little Puerto Rico. Spanish music and hip hop played out of nearby apartments.
Asa was somewhere in Manhattan with Stephanie, the girl he’d met on the same job that I’d met Marie on.
I opened the fridge in Marie's cramped kitchen looking for a beer. Near the back a small jar of brown liquid caught my attention. I pulled it out and looked at it, trying to figure out what it was. “What’s this sludge?” I yelled to Marie who was unpacking a suitcase, in her bedroom, at the other end of the apartment, her brown hair falling over her shoulders as she leaned over the her suitcase that lay on her bed. She turned and looked at me through two rooms, her petite frame tensing slightly as she turned and walked toward me. “That’s ayahuasca,” she said in her thick French accent as she came into the already overcrowded kitchen. “The guy who I am subleasing this apartment from brought it back from Brazil. Maybe you should try it some time. But not this stuff! It’s not mine.” Her accent lending a seriousness to her tone.
“That’s strange,” I said, putting it back in the fridge, an electric anxiety flooding me, “Jimmy mentioned this stuff to me just after I met you.”
The rain fell hard from the gray sky outside the windows the next day as I organized Marie’s library while she was at work, daydreaming as the rain poured down, picturing myself living there in the apartment with her, ensconced in Williamsburg, reading books, in love. And I thought of the brown sludge in the back of her refrigerator.
The next few days me, Marie, Asa and Stephanie drank our way through New York City, the Lower East Side, from a friend’s apartment where they tried to shave Asa’s ass, to dive bars throughout where Marie and Asa called each other ‘frog’ and ‘stupid redskin’, and I began to fall for Marie making hazy and crazed proclamations of drunken love.
It was our last night in New York City. Me, Marie, Asa and a buddy of ours from Austin who’d moved to Brooklyn the year before, drinking and listening to country music at Marie’s. We’d just recently introduced Marie to the sound, and she couldn’t get enough of the real stuff – Hank Williams Jr., Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, etc. Sinner/saintly music from red dirt America that seemed to coo to her slightly uptight French New Yorker aesthetics. Late into the night we turned the speakers up in her low lit apartment, toasted to life and danced in the tube like living room filled with books as the outlaw music played out of the open windows into the harsh concrete and steel night of Williamsburg.
Midnight approached and Marie went to get more beer from the corner store before they closed to keep the party going. When the door shut and she was gone I drunkenly leaned over and told Asa about the ayahuasca in the fridge. “What kind of jungle juice is that?” he asked. He’d never heard of it before, and his eyes went wild with the thought of a new drug as he brushed away the long black curls of hair falling around his face. “Let me see that shit,” he said as he got up and walked into the darkened kitchen. He opened the fridge and I reached in and pulled out the jar with the brown liquid goop buried in the back. His eyes narrowed in the dim light from the open refrigerator door as he took the jar from my hand and stared at the sludge. He sniffed it and cringed then downed half of it instantly, slamming what was left on the counter top. “Your turn,” he said unflinchingly. I looked at him. “Drink it buddy. Trust me,” he said smiling… And I drank it down.
Sometime later I found myself in the pitch black closet of a bathroom. I didn’t know what time it was or how long I’d been in there. I felt like I needed to throw up. I couldn’t tell if it was because of the drug or the beer or both. Whatever the reason was, I didn’t want it to come up as I figured that that would just make things worse. I took off my clothes and climbed into the shower where I sat on the floor letting the warm water wash over me, trying to determine if I was high or drunk. Then I heard Marie’s voice in the background sounding far away, searching for me, comforting. Suddenly she stepped through the darkness, as though it were a veil, and into the shower. An orange tunnel of light emanated from her stomach. LOVE. It was pure unfiltered love, spreading over me, through me, absorbing me, filling me. Her soft words penetrated me, comforting. Her hand stroked my hair reassuringly. And I melted in into the unconditional grace of her overpowering, overwhelming orange glowing, radiating, all encompassing love.
In the early morning I awoke to Asa standing over me. His hair seemed to be moving. “What are you doing?” I asked him. “Do you see them?” he wanted to know. “The little green men. They were peeking at me from the plants in the other room,” he said, then turned and walked away and I fell back to sleep. I woke again a little while later to Marie laying on top of me in bed, her blue eyes staring at me intently. Light poured in through the window above the rusted fire escape outside where I thought I saw a little green man looking at me. Tracers curved around the outlines of the room. Marie was dressed for work, glowering at me, “Did you drink it?” she demanded.
“Yes,” was all I could manage.
Her weight shifted off of me and as she stood and I remembered the orange tunnel of light, and the outpouring of love.
“Oofff, I can’t believe you. That was not mine. I have to explain it to him now. I can’t believe you!” she huffed.
“It was amazing,” I said and smiled, “you were pure love.”
Her stance softened.
“What did you see" she asked reluctantly?
“Pure love pouring out of you.”
“Really,” she said, “You have to tell me about it later. I have to go,” she said, fighting off a smile. “I can’t believe you drank it. You’re supposed to be with a shaman,” she said, then leaned in and kissed me, “You’re crazy.”
“I was with Asa. He’s my shaman,” I said, “You were pure love.”
She laughed and shook her head, then turned and left for work. And I fell back to sleep.
I woke up around noon.
Rain poured down from the desultory sky outside of the smudged windows. My head ached. The room crackled with a faint hum of a distant electricity. I looked around. The place was a mess. Beer bottles and clothes were strewn everywhere. A frantic panic gripped me. We had to get out of the city. We’d already missed our plane two days before. We’d missed work. We were running out of money and wearing out our welcome. I got up, threw on some clothes, walked through the room filled with plants and Marie’s desk to the room with the books and the couch where Asa slept and woke him up.
“We gotta go.”
His eyes tried to focus. “I know,” he said, “The room’s been movin’ on me. I’ve been hearing things. Somethin’s not right. I saw green men spying on me. We gotta get outta here.”
“Yeah, I saw one too.”
Within fifteen minutes we were packed out the door, drenched in rain heading toward the Port Authority and Greyhound.
In Manhattan crowds of sullen people under a sea of black umbrellas filled the streets. Cars honked and screeched. My senses seemed on edge as dark skyscrapers loomed overhead. “I don’t think I can make it,” I said.
“Hang in there buddy. I’ll getchya outta here,” he said as I ducked into a liquor store to buy some whiskey to wash away the hangover.
By the time we got to the Greyhound ticket office I was buzzed, and were soaked, frazzled and weary. We stood at the ticket window pooling our money, having trouble making simple additions. The stoic old man behind the counter watched us without concern and nodded as we counted, then took over for us and told us we had enough to get us to Oklahoma. We had to get back to Texas. But Asa was from Oklahoma. His younger brother lived there. Close enough. From there we’d figure it out.
After we bought the tickets we wandered the station in a dazed state confusion, disoriented and shaken. But as we huddled on the ground near a garbage can in the corner of the loud monolithic surroundings, out of the way of the other deranged and haggard passengers a shared sense of well being permeated us.
Asa looked at me cockeyed and smiling. “Do you feel it?” he asked.
“Yeah. I feel alright,” I smiled, and we laughed, as we knew that we should have felt fucked given our situation, not a dollar to our names.
“It’s gotta be that drug,” Asa said looking out into nothing, “I’m still tingling inside.”
As the bus hurtled across the land away from the chaotic city toward middle America we sweated out the toxins of the week, curled up in the back seat as the sun rose and set for seemingly days on end with a comforting yet maddening regularity. We were cramped and uncomfortable yet exhilarating and manically alive, laughing at the absurdity of our hungered and weary misery in the grand scheme of things, as somehow, perhaps because of the lingering effects of the drug, we knew that everything was as it should be.
During a ten hour layover in St. Louis we lay in the grass of a park and stared up at the dull glow of the afternoon sky. I felt like something had shifted in my life. And I knew that things were going to different somehow from then on. Something in the air. Something from the week before. Something in the drug.
Asa and I spent the day talking about the crazy paths of our pasts that had led us to meeting each other five years before, reliving the funniest of the stories from our stagehand days on the road in Texas touring with up and coming country acts. And as the light began to slowly diffuse to dusk and sketchy figures filled the park we talked and laughed and made grand plans that we’d soon get ourselves into, like seeing the ports of the world working as Merchant Marines, or working together on fishing boats in Alaska, then raising dogs and running the Iditarod. And as much as I wanted to believe in the thought of adventure that being with Asa always promised I somehow knew that none it would ever come about, and a sadness followed me as we head back toward the Greyhound station beneath the slowly darkening sky.
And I knew as the bus plunged into the heartland toward the fading red orange horizon that things would never be the same for me or Asa, and that I’d chase that vision of love that’d poured out of Marie.
Five months later I had moved to Brooklyn with Marie. We were visiting Ecuador together, staying in the Andes in a small town at the foot of an active volcano. I was working on a book about all my sad and crazy years when I got the email that Asa had overdosed during SXSW in Austin. ‘Well, it happened,’ the line from Jimmy had read, and I thought about all the adventures that we’d never get to have, and I cried as I wished him a safe journey to the Great Buffalo in the sky to whom he often prayed. He was a good friend and better traveling companion, my foul-mouthed shaman who’d inadvertently guided me from one shore to the other in the ongoing struggle of my life. And I miss him dearly.