V. and I had something like thirty minutes ago swallowed the ecstasy. She was wearing black velvet pants and a tight little purple top, exposing a pale midriff pulled taut by the two knobs of a visible pelvic bone. Clunky black leather boots on her feet so tall the laces crisscrossed a million times — looking at them, you got dizzy. “Cheers,” we’d said, water glasses clinking, pills down throats. A few minutes were killed making sure everything was just right. The music: bizarro electronica. The lighting: one candle, a finicky orange teardrop in the middle of my coffee table. Shadows flashed around the walls as if attached to bungee cords. Then we waited.
“You feeling it?”
V. said, “Yes, yes I am.”
My apartment back then was this: a hallway, a room, a stove, a toilet, a shower, a sink, a fridge, four pieces of furniture, a window that pressed up against the window of my neighbors, a bitchy couple who constantly told me to turn my music down. Under the window was the lime green couch/guest bed/reading chair. That’s where V. was right now, lying down, long and thin.
“I can’t believe it’s your first time,” I said. “Let me climb on the couch with you so you can feel — ”
This is where the doorbell rings.
“You expecting anyone?” I asked.
But let’s back up for a moment, because things are about to get strange, and certain facts must be established. I was twenty-one, V. was twenty-eight. A year earlier, we’d dated for a month. I use the word “dated” because I have no other way to describe those thirty days: we’d eat dinner, drink, talk, laugh, drink more, go back to my house and claw at each other for a few hours. I was in a phase where I had convinced myself that my textbook fear of commitment was something more profound, a desire to “push the limits” of conventional sex, which was my way of justifying the fact that V. and I did not, in actuality, have sex. We’d kiss, we’d lick, we’d strip, we’d touch, we’d tug, we’d pant, we’d beg, we’d get “so close” but “not quite,” we’d “do everything but,” and feel, at all times, raw and spent and wanting more (but not, alas, involved in anything “serious”).
Eventually, though, V. decided I was a juvenile madman with serious intimacy issues. I couldn’t disagree. We stopped dating but in time became close, legitimate friends: the kind who dissected our various conquests over drinks, whose intentions, in short, were not directly proportional to our own self-interests.
Then came September 11, 2001. V. rang my house around nine that night: the trains weren’t running, she couldn’t get to Brooklyn, what the fuck was happening, and could she crash at my house? We met at a bar, we ate tater tots, we returned home, we crawled into bed. Then, because the world was ending, because old boundaries were now irrelevant, we moved toward each other, pulling and pushing and spreading, and, finally, having sex.
Yes, I know how it sounds. Call me small. Or pathetic or ridiculous — I don’t care. The sex felt comfortable and authentic (if, somewhere, I knew it was fragile and idiotic and destined for disaster), and I’m sure, quite sure, we weren’t the only ones in such a state that night.”Who-eezzz it?” I was calling after the doorbell, loud and silly, as I ambled down the hallway to my front door. The drug was starting to take effect, giving me a full-body shiatsu from the inside out. I’d done E maybe four times since I was nineteen, and I liked it tremendously, how everything I touched — a soft sweater, a pencil eraser, a taut inner thigh — seemed to burn with possibilities. My brief history of drug use is one of petty experimentation with everything but coke and heroin, and I had never directly equated any of it with sex: drugs are intense, sex is intense — the two together were too overwhelming, not to mention erection-impairing.Ecstasy, however, was different and, for me, perfect: you felt sexy, you wanted to kiss, lick, and be naked — you wanted, in other words, to have sex without exactly “having sex.”
But I was becoming an adult, it was time to shed my silly extravagances, and I wanted to indulge one last time with someone I was (1) comfortable with and (2) could roll around with naked should the desire strike. V. once told me she wouldn’t do E because it wreaked havoc on your spinal cord and seratonin levels, leaving your emotional equilibrium pureed for life. But that was during pre-apocalyptic days. Now everyone’s emotional equilibrium was piecemeal, and one day I said let’s take ecstasy and maybe roll around naked, and she said okay, let’s —
“It’s your neighbor,” came a quiet voice that sounded nothing like any one of my neighbors. I looked through the peephole, which was being covered by a hand.
There are, I’m sure, certain people — precision-guided by logic learned in law firms and hospitals — who have something prepared for a situation like this. A safety procedure, maybe. Some sort of questionnaire. These people do not take ecstasy two weeks after a terrorist attack — they stock up on duct tape, flare guns, gas masks.
Which is to say I opened the door. And just as I turned the knob, I felt that someone, the quiet voice on the other side and the muscles and tendons and ligaments attached to it, was forcing it open. The door opened a bit and . . . oh my God what the fuck is this?
There’s no pretty way to put it: a woman who had just inhaled a whole lot of crack was forcing her way into my apartment. Caramel skin, thirtyish, big shaking eyes, tiny mouth, lips on vibrate. Her whole body was quaking. And then came her little hands, flying up in my face like spiders, a soot-stained glass pipe jangling around in one of them.
She said, “Oh let me in let me in please.”
The ecstasy was now zooming through my bloodstream and brainstem. Had I not been at the door, I’d likely be asking V. to rub lotion all over my hands while I sucked on her earlobes. “Just wait,” I said, trying to stall. “I don’t think I even know who you — ”
“Please let me in oh please they’re coming for me — ”
The corporate lawyers, the neurologists — here is where they slam the door, lock all locks, throw on the gas mask, call the police. Me, I wanted to see what would happen next. So I snatched her flailing wrists in one hand — because if she was planning on using a gun or knife that would ruin the whole experience — and yanked her down to the floor. I locked the door and asked, “Who’s coming for you?”
Two weeks after 9-11. Downtown was still a smoldering crematorium. Part of me was seriously convinced that terrorists were out in the streets, firing machine guns, looting, raping, taking hostages.
“Oh God oh God oh God,” she was saying to no one in particular.
It was time to call in for backup. I yelled for V.
Her response: “Christ, this feels fantastic! My whole body’s like a rubber toy!”
“That’s great!” I yelled. “Mine too! But — ”
“Like I’m this big slippery knot! Why don’t you come and untie me — ”
“But maybe you could come here for a minute.”
Sitting there on the floor, we fed the girl shots of raspberry vodka until she stopped shaking and started making sense. She explained that she’d somehow ended up on my roof, where she’d smoked crack with two guys who then tried to rip her clothes off. She ran inside my building, knocked on doors, and here she was, on my kitchen floor. “I’m not a homeless degenerate,” she kept saying, at one point insisting that her brother owned a nightclub popular among the heavily waxed-and-tweezed crowd.
I told the crack girl to go ahead, what the fuck, smoke it — anything to get her to stop looking at us like that.
It was unbelievable. She said such funny things, this random rich crack girl! At one point, she asked if we were on ecstasy. How’d she know? Because “our vibe” was so great! She let us stroke her face (which, now that she was calm, was quite stunning)! She was in my house! Drinking my vodka! Nuzzling her little head in the bosom of my good friend with whom I’m now suddenly sleeping because the world is ending but we all sort of know it’s not really ending so we’re actually doing it because — oh, who cares! The possibilities were endless!
For an hour, we all hung out. The crack girl sat on my couch smoking cigarettes. V. and I sat on the floor, hands up the back of each other’s shirts. “Yeah, go ahead and touch each other,” the crack girl would say. “Don’t mind me.” And we didn’t. It went on like this: the three of us conversed about nothing in particular as V. and I groped one another. The mood was calm and sexy and just surreal enough that I could convince myself that none of it was quite happening, that no mistakes were being made.
Except the girl started to go haywire again. At first it was subtle: her eyes dating around, hands shaking. But then she came straight out with it —
“Would you mind if I excuse myself to your bathroom and” — holding up the glass pipe — “smoke the rest of this?”
“Well,” I said, with the patronizing goofiness of one person on drugs telling another not to do drugs, “it sure didn’t seem to have such a good effect on you.” I turned to V., who at that point had left me on the floor and was hanging upside down on my canopy bed, running her palms over her velvet thighs.
“It sure didn’t,” she said.
Remember those anti-drug videos from elementary school? Where an actor hysterically begged, “Come on, man . . . just this once . . . it’s not a problem, dude, I swear, I swear,” and remember how phony they seemed,and how everyone would laugh until the teachers said quiet down or else? Well, all of a sudden, this girl was one of those people, and I felt terrible for giggling during those assemblies. Her eyes went dead and desperate as she stared at us, pleading. I glanced at V. and told the crack girl to go ahead, what the fuck, smoke it, anything to get her to stop looking at us like that. She was ruining everything.
“It’s no problem,” she said as she closed the bathroom door. “Just this once —”
The click of a lighter. That awful, slashed-tire sucking sound humans are not supposed to make.
And she emerged, a copy of the girl I first saw: twitching, panicked, completely deranged. “They” were everywhere again, she said, coming for her. But now it wasn’t even interesting. Just lame and scary and undeniably real.
I grabbed her arms. “It’s time for you to go.”
“But they’re everywhere — ”
“You have to leave,” I said. “No one’s anywhere.”
“Why why why?”
That’s when V. stepped in.
She looked the girl dead in the eye, and said, “Because we are going to fuck now.”
I had no idea what to do with this. The whole idea of sex was, to me, completely gone.
“Wha — ” the crack girl said.
“He and I are going to fuck because we like each other and are on ecstasy,” V. said. “I’m going to fuck him, and I don’t want you to see.”
Oh God, I thought. Really?
“Oh,” the crack girl said, this logic somehow penetrating her drug-induced paranoia. “I’m sorry. You are?”
“Going to fuck,” V. said.
I gave the girl a clean shirt, ten dollars, and shoved her out the door. “Wha — ” she started.
“Fucking!” V. shouted one last time. “Sex!”
But in the end we didn’t. And I don’t think V. really meant it. For the first hour, being around that girl gave V. and I a perverted sense of hope: things could be so much worse. But watching her unravel left us hyperaware of our own situation, how fragile it was. How inane. We were just clinging, clinging, clinging — to what? We were just two confused people using drugs to mask the hopelessness of what they were doing. In the end, what was just then somehow obvious, our sleeping together seemed to be a cheap remedy for a cheap situation. V. and I walked around the neighborhood for the rest of the night, barely talking. We split an ice cream cone.
A few weeks later, we weren’t speaking to each other.
David Amsden is the author of Important Things That Don’t Matter. He lives in Brooklyn.
This article originally ran in Nerve’s Personal Essays in 2003.