Times I Was Secretly High: An Apology Letter

Well, it looks like it’s finally going to be legal to smoke weed for funsies in Minnesota, which is terrific news for all of the people languishing in jail for smoking or dealing weed for funsies in Minnesota. Law is the ultimate example of the abject arbitrariness of reality: we have an entire system of rules and consequences established around the specious assertion that smoking weed, and all practices associated with it are, well, objectively bad. And not just rules and consequences, an elaborate — and until very recently, shared — ethos that avers a deep and persistent truth: using marijuana is dangerous and wrong. What a hoot.

Being a human is such absurdity, most of the time — how does anyone keep a straight face? Like so many of you, I have struggled with some of the more frittersome or idiosyncratic morae introduced as inalienable verities: men do this, women are that, and you’re either one or the other; these are the ways we cover our bodies with cloth, but these ways are terrible and wrong; these animals are great to eat, but these ones are friends … Sometimes, the whole world seems like a very elaborate game of make believe we’re all playing together. Through the right lens, even the houses we live in, with two sinks in the bathrooms, secret refrigerators, walk-in closets — it’s all like some fantastical fever dream.

Now that I’ve written myself to this spot, I find it’s a pretty good segue to my own relationship with weed.

During my childhood in Alaska, marijuana was legal. Like, really legal. Loads of my friends’ parents grew it in their houses, and people smoked it on the ferry boats and in restaurants. It was around all the time. Once, I idly plucked a huge bud from my friends’ dad’s plant in his bay window. I was staring out at the neighbor’s insane dog as it strained against its massive chain in an attempt to eat the passing children. Realizing I had plucked it absentmindedly, I shoved it into my pocket and carried it around, forgetting about it entirely within minutes. I rode my bike home and, like the rest of my pants, I wore those pants for the next several days before tossing them in the laundry. If I’d been growing up in, say, Utah, I’d have been the first-ever drug mule wearing Toughskins and riding a banana-seat Schwinn for her initial drug run. A real pioneer.

In spite of this omnipresence, I never smoked it (although I certainly got contact exposure many, many times, which undoubtedly made more than one field trip or church outing muuuuuch chiller than it would otherwise have been). I was, as I’ve described in a previous essay, very committed to perfection, due to some irksome complexities in my home life and neural wiring. I was also really, really scared of being high. I can’t attribute this to any direct cause, save my infinite desire to be in control of every conceivable outcome at all times, like a chubby, blonde Dr. Strange wearing Toughskins and a Petersburg Vikings sweatshirt. But once my home life upended itself, scattering the contents of my elaborately compartmentalized life all over the world like so much confetti, I started to reconsider the notion of oblivion as a remedy for what ailed me. After all, I thought: what better medicine for chaos than chaos?

I was a sophomore, and we had just moved from Petersburg, Alaska to Juneau, Alaska, and then to Kennelwick*, Maine. No one there really knew me, save two chosen cousins who were saddled with me every time we moved to Maine (which was many times — read about that in the essay “New Kid“), so I was a kind of social tabula rasa. It was the one truly wonderful thing about moving so much: I had a period of possibility that was intoxicating. One thing persisted in every single city and town in which I found myself: everyone initially believed I was utterly, entirely innocent. Maybe it was because I looked like Alice in Wonderland. Maybe it was the studied blank expression of absolute attention I had as my resting face. I will never know why, but in any conflict, everyone always assumed I was the levelheaded, sober, trustworthy one in the group.

Dear reader, we are gathered here for me to reveal, categorically and with detailed evidentiary narrative, that this was — and please listen carefully — almost always false. I would like to sincerely apologize for this egregious and ignominious revelation.

Case 1: Designated Driver

At the end of my sophomore year, I was invited to a massive, year-end party at an enormous summer “cabin” owned by the father of a friend. Every single cool kid in Kennelwick High School was definitely going, and, because of my close friendship with one very cool kid who had taken me under her wing, I was invited, too. The night went how you think it did: kegs, sexual escapades, loads of weed, some mushrooms and a few of the wildly intrepid kids on LSD. I smoked cigarettes and lurked, waiting for the person I was crushing on to make an appearance.

By the end of the night, everyone else was wasted, including our designated driver, David, which wouldn’t have been a problem, were it not for the fact that Todd from the basketball team whipped into the driveway to tell us that the cops had been called by some priggish distant neighbor, and we had minutes to get as far away from the party as possible. David had driven me, and three other friends, all of whom were gathered around when Todd made his announcement. David turned to me, in front of the whole group, and said, “you weren’t drinking, right?” I nodded. “Cool. Guys, Anna’s driving us. Let’s go!” And with that, the whole of our party piled into the Buick LeSabre.

I wasn’t lying — I was entirely sober. But — crucially — I had no idea how to drive. I had, up to that moment, driven one time: I stole the car my mom was borrowing from her best friend and promptly drove it into a ditch. The entirety of my driving experience was this single 30-second disaster. Sitting in the driver’s seat like a bewildered child emperor, I explained, in clear and plain terms, my driving incapacity. David nodded, earnestly. After a moment, he said, “Driving’s just not that hard. You’ll be fine.”

I don’t know what, in the decade I’d known David, had inspired such totally unfounded confidence in me, but it was clear his mind was made. A quick glance in the rear-view mirror revealed a trio of nodding heads. So, it was resolved. Glancing once more woefully at the souls in the backseat, I said a little prayer to whichever angel is responsible for protecting unlicensed drivers from killing everyone in their Buick LeSabre (LeSabriel, probably), and started the car.

I very gingerly piloted the vehicle down the long dirt driveway, teaching myself how the steering wheel, gas and brake pedals worked. The crew in the car was wildly supportive, shouting “you’re getting it!” and “Nice job braking!” None of this was alarming to anyone but me. Finally, we were forced to hit the actual road, rolling onto the asphalt like a little dinghy bobbing at the front of Napoleon’s Waterloo ranks.

I grew more confident during the first 10 minutes of the 20+ minute drive from South Newell to Kenelwick, eventually soaring up to 35-40 miles per hour. Maybe I could do this, after all? That’s when the cop pulled in behind me.

Everyone in the car stopped talking at once, as if our collective silence would make us invisible. The next 10 minutes of the drive took five hundred years. Somehow, in spite of what must have been widespread police awareness of the party, featuring scads of underaged drunkies, my erratic steering and braking, and the car entirely filled with teens, we did not get pulled over. Finally, as we crossed into Kennelwick, negotiating a five-way intersection with guesswork that can best be described as a frantic quantum calculus, the cop passed us, gazing across his vehicle into ours, scrutinizing me as he passed. Satisfied (how? And also why?), he turned into the parking lot of Friendly’s Ice Cream and headed back the way he came. I drove to David’s house, and, having burned through the adrenaline required to power an entire cocaine bear, announced that we would be sleeping here until someone else was sober enough to drive. David patted me on the shoulder. “See? Easy.” I stared at him like 10,000 pounds of discountenanced tofu. He continued, “You did really good for being high.”

“What?” I said, reasonably, for someone entirely depleted of all endocrine products.

“Oh, you just did a great job for being high. A lot of people would have freaked out with the cop behind them.”

I shook my head slowly. “You thought I was high and didn’t know how to drive?”

David smiled. “Yeah. But I knew you could do it.”

And so it began: the period of my life in which, irrespective of my incapacity, I gave the apparent impression of competence. So, to David and the rest of my intrepid LeSabre passengers: I am truly sorry I agreed to drive you in a car on the road when I had never driven anyone or anything in a car on the road, but I want you to know I was not, in fact, stoned.

That time.

Case 2: I’d Like to Thank the Academy

I returned to Kenelwick after high school graduation, having acquired both a Diploma and a robust weed-smoking habit from Alaska. It was a kind of de facto anti-anxiety medication — one that made me come up with brilliant ideas like building a hamster mansion out of empty Mountain Dew bottles (I did not have a hamster and cannot imagine why you’d ask — none of this is relevant to my hamster engineering schematics), or dipping any cheese-flavored snack item into peanut butter. It was also the inception point for my worship of David Bowie. I got the Sound + Vision box set for my 18th birthday, and it changed my life. I would get incredibly high with my friends, lie on the floor of my efficiency apartment and be goddam transported to another dimension.

During this post-grad, weed-saturated era, I worked in one of the local hardware stores. I’d been working there, on and off, since I was 16, and absolutely loved it. My peers at the store were primarily my contemporaries, a small but potent crew of Metallica fans who also knew how to mix paint and Bondo a 1969 Camaro quarter panel. Me, John, Crystal, and Kerry were all between the ages of 19 and 21. The one exception was Max, a 40-something Vietnam veteran who smoked cigarettes and weed constantly and could fix literally any small motor anyone brought to him. I loved them all entirely.

Me, Kerry, John, and Max hung out pretty much every night, leaving work only to clean up and eat, and then convene again, usually at my apartment. We would smoke veritable piles of weed, listening to Metallica’s self-titled album, which I dutifully tried to enjoy, and Boston’s self-titled album, which was the best thing I’d heard since Pearl Jam (but not as good as Bowie). I painted three peoples’ apartments (and one basement) to that album, such was its super-licky momentum. (I also painted a lot of places to the Pixies Bossanova album, which did not require but instead facsimilated being fantastically stoned while painting.)

One night, we all left the hardware store at 5, because we had a store meeting after close, at 8:30. Because we all had to come right back, basically, we decided to go hang at my apartment — I lived the closest — until the meeting.

I would like to pause the story at this point to assert that I never, ever was high at work or school. I had a code, of sorts, and getting brained before work was verboten: what if I sold someone the wrong fertilizer? What if I overfilled a propane tank? What if I finally told that spiteful old lady what she could really do with her thousand-year-old lawnmower for which no one on earth could get the parts? Nope. I restricted my stony life to the interstices of my life — recreation only.

But, Kerry pointed out at 5:15, as we all sat around the one large room that was my apartment, this wasn’t really work. This, she asserted, while rolling a joint, was a meeting. As everyone around me passed the joint and the room filled with smoke, it started to make an elegant kind of sense. There would be no precarious customers. I wouldn’t be doing anything but listening, if the prior two years of staff meetings were any indication. Starla would tell us about upcoming shipments, sales, and inventory-taking weekends. There’d be cookies. Maybe Tony would talk about people leaving their cigarette butts where customers could see them, or Steve from plumbing would remind us to put the copper fittings away more carefully, but that was it. So, after at least 15 minutes of careful consideration, I got high. Really high.

Unregulated weed was always a crap shoot. You never knew what you were smoking until it hit you. I only took a few shallow hits off the joint, intending to get lightly lifted — a kind of musing stonedness. But instead, I was launched into the thermosphere like a rocket made of bean bags. Really, really, really high.

Somewhat unfortunately, I discovered this fact upon taking my seat at the staff meeting, far from the supports I might otherwise have pressed into service — eyedrops, sunglasses, my entire darkened apartment, which now featured a magnificent Mountain Dew hamster mansion and a castle made of spare change, silicon-caulked together. Instead, I was bubble-wrapped in paranoia and anxiety, consumed with just two thoughts: how stoned do I look to everyone else, and will I somehow keep getting more stoned? The answers to those questions were respectively very, and yes.

After ten or so minutes of chit chat that took the entirety of my cognitive ability and challenged the very boundaries of corporeality, Starla took the floor. When she began talking, I finally experienced some measure of relief. All eyes — about 28 of them — were on her. I assiduously returned to my oscillating paranoia and anxiety. I was so diligent in this effort that Starla had to say my name several times before she got my attention, at which point I noticed several things: Starla was smiling from ear to ear, everyone was applauding, and everyone was staring fixedly at me.

“Do you want to say a few words?” Starla asked me, the most lit, dissociated person in the history of time. I patently did not wish to say a few words, primarily because selecting any few words that might be intelligible and lucid seemed dead impossible. I needed a kind of stoned-brain Rosetta Stone. It would have been easier for me to sing Happy Birthday in Sumerian, actually. Not to mention the very pressing fact that I had no idea what she had been saying, or why everyone was clapping.

There was one terrible, dangerous moment in which I seriously considered just telling everyone I was really high — maybe they’d understand? — but I rejected that because of the amount of explaining it would require, and the implication of my fellows, who, as I glanced around the breakroom, looked as stoned as me. The difference, of course, being that none of them had been asked to orate.

So, finding no other preferable alternative, I did the most insane possible thing you can do when righteously high: I made a speech.

About what? you might logically ask me. I figured the clapping meant that I owed someone a thank you, but perhaps it wasn’t for me, particularly? Maybe I should have been clapping, too? So, I didn’t exactly make a victory speech, but neither did I not make a victory speech. I made a nothing speech: I said nothing, in as many words as possible. I said things like, “this is really great, you guys. I think thanks are in order.” I also said — many times — very honestly and earnestly, “I don’t know what to say.” I’d like to say that never in the history of speeches has there ever been a speech that said less about anything than the one I delivered, but we both know that’s categorically untrue. At any rate, the crowd seemed satisfied, and we moved on to other matters, to which I paid a fervid and obsessive level of attention.

The next day I learned that I had been promoted to head of the Lawn and Garden Department, which, if you think about it, is a little fart-scented chef’s kiss from the universe.

To Marta, and the entire staff of Kennelwick True Value Hardware, I sincerely apologize for my blazed irreverence. I took that job very seriously, and was truly honored to be promoted. And although it is a dubious distinction, my ambiguous homily remains my only stoned public speaking engagement. I’d like to think that speaks to my remorse, but it might also be just the vicissitudes of surprise work-meeting promotion speeches. Either way, I’m sorry.

Case 3: If You Ask a Mom a Question

My mom is brilliant. She’s quirky and assiduous, fascinated by rarified and esoteric hobbies and subjects, and prone to very deep dives: to wit, I receive both an orchid report and a sourdough report from her, bi-monthly. I confess no great interest in either, but I do have a truly deep interest in the wacky way my mom devours information. I’m along for the ride, whether the ride is through ancient history or the best antimicrobial dishpan.

When I was 19, the apex of my weed-smoking career, my mom decided to go back to college. This meant she was positively brimming with data, absolutely indehiscent with arcanum, which she would unceremoniously unload on whomever she encountered first upon entering the house. She was like Mr. Oogie Boogie, only instead of being filled with bugs, she was filled with teeming facts about the origin of aqueducts or aquafaba.

One day, me and both the hippie Tanyas (Tanya R. and Tanya M, who shared a love of Phish, weed, and overalls) had spent the better part of the day getting as high as we possibly could: seriously, this was our avowed mission. An accord had been struck after a morning brunch date, and we set after accomplishing it with the same alacrity and determination as one might endeavor to accomplish any more admirable or estimable goal, like building houses for the poor or stacking sandbags to contain a flooding river. We did it like a job.

This level of passionate tenacity resulted in our achieving the desired results fairly early in the afternoon, the three of us all lying prone, listening to David Bowie and occasionally muttering to each other that this was indeed the highest any of us had ever been. Time became a sort of languid river, so I couldn’t really tell you how long we floated in it, save the fact that it certainly didn’t seem like it had been 6 hours, but 6 hours it must have been, since that was when my mom returned from her class, and there she was, pulling into the driveway.

The Tanyas decided they’d rather not spend this special time with my mother, and headed out to resume their recumbency in a second location. I, in my addled state, determined that the best way to pass somehow as … not the most stoned I had ever been was to lounge very purposefully on the couch. I didn’t turn on the TV, grab a book, or turn the stereo back on. I just laid there waiting for my mom’s inevitable arrival like a Target athleisure model: lengthwise on my side, with my head leaning on my hand above my bent arm, and my other arm lying flat along my side. It looked most like I was about to surprise her with sex.

My mom walked into the living room and plopped her book bag near the door, dropping into the wingback chair she always preferred, facing me. She eyed me, nonplussed (that means curiously and I will die on this hill), and said, “what … what are you doing?” My brain was still very much in galaxy mode, and I fought to translate “riding a gravity dolphin through the layers of consciousness rn,” into anything resembling a reasonable explanation for my whole thing.

“Just hanging out,” I said, summarizing my situation in the most explicable way. Luckily, my mom was in full Oogie-Boogie-fact-roil mode, and my hand-wave satisfied her.

“I just learned the most interesting thing,” she began. I had been here many times before, and knew that while this was undoubtedly true for her, it might very well not be true for me. At that moment, I did not have the capacity to defend myself, and instead, found myself saying, “Oh, yeah? TELL ME ALL ABOUT IT.”

I said that out loud, to my mother. And then she fucking did.

The interesting thing she’d learned, as it unfolded, was the way human society came to develop and live in towns, which, it turned out, took exactly as much time to happen in human history as it took to explain it to me. Because I was so high, I was afraid to change my position on the couch, because doing so would give me away. So I remained in my sexy catalog position for the entire exposition, my full attention devoted to appearing to give my mother my full attention. I will offer, to her credit, that the first hour or so was very possibly quite interesting, from what I could piece together from the mesmerizing flow of her words and gesticulations. But I was not able to absorb the rapid freestyle flow of knowledge coming from her, so I just let it wash over me, hoping some kind of idea pollination would occur, lest I be held accountable for this information at a later date.

At somewhere around the midpoint of this exegesis, I realized parts of my body had been without motion or blood for so long that they had sort of petrified. This seemed like an okay way to go, and I idly considered whether or not my slow transformation into a felled pine might startle my mother from her idea reverie. As if hearing this rumination, my mom stopped, looked deeply at me, and asked, “are you okay? You’re really quiet.”

I nodded enthusiastically, and said, “Yes! GO ON” like some kind of absolute maniac. So she did. I don’t know how much time elapsed, but I was sober by the time she wrapped up, satisfied that she had brought this tale to life. I repaired to my basement bedroom, where I reflected on the surprising fact that I had, in fact, absorbed quite a bit of information. I drifted off imagining the scratchy straw beds in the first towns, hundreds of years from discovering how much nicer feathers were.

Mom, I’m deeply sorry I Pineapple-Expressed your fantastically detailed recounting of the origin of human towns. I want you to know that, like most of the wisdom you have so lovingly and generously thrown down in our time on earth together, I got more out of it than either of us knew. And in answer to your next question, yes, I was high then. And also then. Yes, then, as well. I love you, and promise you that weed was never a gateway drug.

Smoking was.

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