Fiction

Specimen Days

Ben Lerner

It was as if, by the time I exhaled, I was already a little too high, my breathing labored, and the speed and cadence of the speech around me hard to follow. I stood up suddenly, but then decided I didn’t want to go back into the light and face the grown-ups, so I sat down again without explanation; I thought the kids were laughing at me. Monika appeared and pulled up a chair beside us; she offered me a cigarette, which I took, but didn’t smoke, just rotated in my fingers. Soon more cocaine was being emptied from a plastic bag onto the table, and the woman in the towel and swimsuit was chopping it up with a credit card she’d magically produced; more than the heater, I suspected drugs were keeping her warm. Part of me said, Do a tiny bump of cocaine and you’ll feel sober, centered, back in control, and probably a little euphoric; the better part of me said, You have a cardiac condition, don’t be an idiot, come down a little and go home. The better part of me easily won the debate: I decided not to do it, but I decided not to do it after I was already looking up from the glass top of the table, having insufflated a small line.

I passed the straw to the intern and waited for the crystalline alkaloid to sober me, and then raise me into a state of preternatural attention, obliterating whatever anxiety I had about having done it. While I waited, I watched the intern whose dinner I’d purchased do three substantial lines in quick succession; I had the vague sense he wanted to impress me. Monika told him to “hold your horses,” by which she meant something like “take it easy”; everybody laughed at her apt misuse of the proverbial phrase.

I was laughing, too—in fact I saw myself from the outside, in the third person, in a separate window, laughing in slow motion—but then, having done such a stimulant, why was I outside of myself; why was time slowing? Before I knew it, I was trying hard to hold on to that question, felt it was the last link between me and my body, but soon the question didn’t belong to me, was just another thing there in the courtyard from which my consciousness was turning away. Then I was a relation between the heater, the sky, and the blue gleam of the pool, and then I was gone, wasn’t anything at all, the darkest sky in North America. The last vestige of my personality was my terror at my personality’s dissolution, so I clung to it desperately, climbed it like a rope ladder back into my body. Once there, I told my arm to move the cigarette to my lips, watched it do so, but had no sense of the arm or lips as mine, had no proprioception. But when I inhaled the smoke—I didn’t know how the cigarette came to be lit—I could recognize it as traveling down into my chest, which was comforting, anchoring; it was the first cigarette I’d had since they’d discovered my aortic dilation. Only after the young woman in the bathing suit said “K—ketamine—mainly, I thought you knew,” did I hear myself ask, “What the fuck was that?”

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