My sister and I are resting in our cabin on the Botel. We got excited when we saw the reviews on TripAdvisor. People did not mince words: it was a hotel inside of a boat, and the price was right. Erin is cheap. I am less cheap, but perfectly willing. We keep saying that we are “Botel people now.” Our devotion relates to how difficult it turned out to be to get to it. It is not in Amsterdam proper; it is docked on the north side of the harbor. The inconvenient side that you can only get to via a weird, infrequent ferry that is crammed with Dutch people on bicycles who would love nothing more than to run you down as soon as they get a chance. You have to really, really want the Botel.
Speaking of botels, a great way to torture Erin is to mention the Titanic. When she was four, we were at a lake house in Michigan, sitting out one evening under a massive sky, and my mother said it must have been the kind of sky above the people in the water after the Titanic went down. This turned out to be an unwise observation to make. Erin had to be told about the Titanic, every detail. And then she cried about it all night, every night for the rest of the week. Certain older parties felt this ruined the vacation. Our sister Hayley was thirteen and I was ten, mature enough to repress the idea that hundreds of people had actually sunk to the bottom of the ocean with their eyes iced open.
Erin is browsing through Autostraddle.com, a site which analyzes “girl-on-girl culture—lesbian and bisexual women at the edge.” I am Googling the best places to get magic mushrooms. It’s important to stress here that I am the squarest person who has ever lived. If you observe my lifestyle from a distance, you might cast me as a free spirit, a visual effects artist, a “creative professional” cavorting around the world making movies. But visual effects has never been the side of the film industry for the glamorous and spontaneous. It’s the side for the obsessives, the ones who will sit at a computer for days and weeks and months, trapped in a loop, repeating the same sets of steps until they get it right. So I cannot emphasize enough how much I love parameters. It speaks to my lack of true inspiration.
Another core belief of mine is that mind-altering chemicals don’t affect me. Yes, this belief has been categorically debunked when it comes to alcohol. But other drugs seem impotent to me. I spent long, youthful hours in hazy rooms, huffing whatever was passed to me, wondering if I simply lacked the conviction to go where everyone else was going. I guess there are other chemical compounds that do have a profound effect on me, the ones my body produces on its own. The ones that make me love to stare at a particular face or weep at the beauty of a song. The ones that make my heart pound hard in the dark when I think about the uncertainty of my life.
After this lifetime of being a total buzzkill, it comes as a surprise to develop an obsession with LSD in the twilight of my youth. Not with taking LSD, let’s not get crazy. (It’s illegal.) I’m obsessed with researching it. Someone in my writing group suggested I look into the history of the LSD movement as inspiration for a piece of science fiction. At first I was carried along by what a cinematic and unknown history it was. It’s intoxicating to uncover a grave you can rob. I wondered how many dudes with bongs in basements had regaled me about Dr. Timothy Leary’s experiments at Harvard or Ken Kesey’s bus of Merry Pranksters, while I ignored them and eyed their grubby, tie-dyed wall-hangings with judgment.
By the time I read Huxley’s The Doors of Perception fifteen years later, however, I was beyond intrigued. Translated by my brain, his theory of consciousness is this: the normally functioning human mind is a filter, a practical winnowing down of all the things in this world and the ways they could be seen. To disrupt this functioning with a psychedelic is to disrupt this narrowing of focus. It doesn’t cause hallucination, but rather a glimpse of what has always been there. These words infected me. I wanted to lick them off the page. My mind has always been the problem and the solution. I have long suspected this.
This psychedelic fixation is the reason we are here. Erin came to London, where I live, for a conference about glassy dynamics. Erin has a PhD in Physics. I once spent an entire year of my life adding secondary facial jiggle to some computer generated monkeys.
We decided we should go on a European adventure while she was in town. Erin suggested various cities—Copenhagen, Berlin. I shot them down. I wanted a place I hadn’t been before—also a place where I could legally obtain a chemical that would disintegrate my ego. Erin was cool with this. Drugs affect her. I remember the maniac she was as a child, how she would scream at the top of her lungs, run around and around the loop of the living room and dining room back into the kitchen and bounce off the fridge because she had picked up too much speed. I used to get in trouble for pinning her to the ground, for doing what it took to get her to stop moving for just a second.
After browsing through the long list of Amsterdam’s psychedelic purveyors, I finally settle on a TripAdvisor-approved smartshop and close my laptop abruptly. We leave the Botel. It is a sunny late afternoon, not warm but still pleasant. Erin is casual on the ferry. She leans against the railing, her low ponytail the only part of her that moves, a riot of action in the wind. Erin never hurries. She is not a laid-back person—she just doesn’t hurry. Both of my sisters dawdle. I was chronically late for school because of them. Each morning, I would sit in the empty car with my backpack, desperate and enraged, waiting for them to release me from the hell of not knowing what was going to happen. I used to be certain this was because they were inconsiderate assholes, but I have mellowed slightly. Now I think it’s about control. If life is lurking out there, conspiring to fuck with everything they hope for, at least they get to dictate how quickly they go out to confront it.
We reach the city side of the harbor and head towards the smartshop. Amsterdam is as beautiful as everyone says—the canals lined with tilting, gabled buildings—but I don’t appreciate any of it. A silence has descended on us. It’s unusual to be uncomfortable together. She is the only person in the world who has my exact sense of humor. Who understands precisely why it’s been funny to randomly text her Bones promo images of David Boreanaz for the last five years even though neither of us has ever seen Bones. I wonder why I feel anxious now. In many ways, she is the perfect person to lamely take drugs with. After a lifetime of belittlement, she would be the last person to suspect I cared what she thought.
When we arrive, there is no one else inside the smartshop. This is my nightmare. No one to casually stand behind while we pretend to peruse the drug paraphernalia. Maybe we will buy this bong. Or that bong? Maybe we just want this hemp bracelet or that miniature statue of a mushroom. No. There will be no opportunity for bluffing. The friendly, bearded millennial behind the counter speaks to us directly in perfect English. Can he help us? I despise him. I am standing on a precipice. I have to speak because I am older. I have to speak because I am the one who got academically obsessed with psychedelics.
“We are looking for mushrooms,” I say. My face feels hot.
He informs us that selling mushrooms is now illegal in the Netherlands. They sell only the seeds.
“But don’t worry,” he adds, brightly. “We sell truffles. They contain psilocybin. They’re just slightly different.” He tells us why, but I am not listening. I am already diminished. Magic truffles sound so bourgeois. They are probably exactly what I should be taking. I tell him we want the minimum possible dose.
“The dosage depends on the experience you want to have.” He is relentlessly nonjudgmental. “Do you want to have visuals?”
“No, no visuals,” I say without hesitation.
“No. We just want enough to make our egos dissolve.”
He generously considers this and then suggests that we take 10 grams each. With any less, nothing will happen. The trip should last 8 hours.
We buy the suggested amount, stuff it in my backpack, and I rush out of the store. Erin ambles behind me. It’s 7pm and our flight is early the next day. I’m doing the math, feeling the anxiety rising. We can’t trip into the late hours of the night. What if we are too high on the flight? And I suddenly realize I have a blood test the following afternoon as part of a medical exam for my work visa renewal.
“Are they testing … for drugs?” Erin asks.
“I don’t think so, but I don’t know.” The sun is still shining, but I feel my mood darkening. My backpack is heavy and I project into the future and feel it there too, a premeditated dissatisfaction with whatever is about to happen. I can see a shift in the way Erin handles me, trying to go along with whatever I want. It’s a tactic that further provokes me, and we begin to descend into a spiral of me being scary and her being scared. It is the ancient custom of our people.
We decide we will go to Vondelpark, find a place to sit, and see how we feel. Erin keeps saying that we don’t have to do it. Deep down, though, she knows that we do. We are Teichs. If Teichs decide they are required to have a meaningful, spiritual experience on some trussed-up fungus, then by God they are going to go through with it. We head southwest, past the zoo, and the Bloemenmarkt, and the Rijksmuseum.
The park is crammed—it is a gorgeous evening. We wander along the wide, curving footpaths, looking for somewhere isolated. There are people everywhere, though, playing frisbee, doing yoga, laughing together with cans of beer. There is not a single patch of empty-enough grass.
Finally we come upon a small area on the bank of a lake that is isolated, thanks to duck poop scattered all over the ground. Erin scuffs a patch of ground clear with her shoe. We crouch together and decide we will each take 5 grams. A half. We know very well that the man said this would produce no result, but dammit we have to try. The truffles are small, hard nodules. They look like cloves and they taste like dirt—bitter and discouraging. The wind carries over the laughter of a nearby group of teenagers. I glance in their direction—they are not looking at us.
I chew absently and stare at ducks on the water, moving in a lazy undulating formation. I wait for any signs of my identity disassembling. Or at least half of my identity. In my academic research, the study I found the most mesmerizing was the one conducted on patients with terminal illnesses. It showed that a high dose of psilocybin could reliably generate “a sense of merging with the universe.” Two-thirds of participants described this trip as one of the most meaningful experiences of their lives. One third reported they were no longer afraid of dying. I couldn’t get this out of my mind—not just that one experience could shake you to your core, but that it was some kind of switch you could flip if you had the courage.
After a few minutes I ask Erin if anything weird is happening. She stretches and frowns. “Maybe? Maybe I’m feeling pretty loose.”
“I don’t feel anything,” I say, my voice rising to a whine. Erin doesn’t dignify that with a response. She stands and starts shifting her weight from one leg to the other, occasionally throwing in some lazy kicks. Erin is taller than me, even longer and lankier. I stand too and lean against her, so hard that she has to hold on to me to keep me from falling over. She likes to manhandle me. She started doing that as soon as she got bigger, a celebration of the fact that I could no longer dominate her. It’s comforting and infantile that we still do this as adults—invade each other’s personal space.
We find a dumpster and I stealthily throw in the remaining 10 grams of truffles. They lay there, on top of the other trash, an eye-catching, unopened package. I wonder if someone braver than me will come along and rescue them from their fate as a totem of wimpiness.
We will spend the rest of the night wandering, waiting to see if something extraordinary will happen. There will be no visuals. Our egos will remain very much intact. Erin will not act annoyed with me—she will be kinder than I like to admit that she is. We will feel normal and eat some noodles and head back to the Botel. I will look out the window before we go to bed, and see a long, straight cloud between two buildings in the distance. I won’t be able to tell what it is and I will ask Erin if it’s a giant bridge.
“That cloud?” she will say, confused. As soon as she says this, I will see that’s exactly what it is. But then we will laugh and agree that I am finally tripping my balls off. And when we turn the lights off and lay there side by side in the dark, the Botel rocking in the harbor, I will consider the idea that something metaphysical did happen, that the evening is already congealing into a story, and sometimes my ego manages to dissolve a little when I hear one of those.