The only ones left alive
My husband and I bought weed at the local hash dispensary where the budtender, who looked like David Foster Wallace—bandanna-capped hair, wire-rimmed glasses, soft unshaven face—informed us about the holistic health benefits of CBD for pain control. He recommended two kinds of vapes and edibles, which we purchased and brought back to the apartment to smoke with my in-laws, John and Rachel. It was early August, a hot and dry day. John had recently moved to Centennial, a suburb of Denver, to work as a radio consultant for Clear Channel before being forced into retirement three months after his arrival. A former Top 40 deejay, John always talked to his family as if he was interviewing them on air.
“So Cathy, who would you say your muse is?”
“So Cathy, what are your top ten poetry books?”
John used to live in Dallas with Rachel. But when his company decided to move him for the third time in two years, Rachel had put her foot down and said she was staying. Rather than take that as a sign their marriage was troubled, John moved to Denver by himself. His new apartment, with its gray leather couch, glass coffee table, and flat-screen TV, was as bare and impersonal as if it were regularly rented out on Airbnb.
Around noon, once we settled in, we vaped several rounds of sativa. Almost immediately, we had cravings, even though we’d had brunch a couple of hours ago. “I wish you’d bought some snacks,” Rachel complained. Eager to please his wife, John rose up and brought out a bag of zero-calorie popcorn, three waxy red apples, and some dry carrot sticks—the unmunchiest of snacks possible. My husband, Jeremy, took a bite of the apple and then asked, “Do you have anything else, Dad?”
John looked in the refrigerator and offered us a carton of blueberries. I popped a few in my mouth. They were so flavorless I was sure that my taste buds had died. Weed was supposed to accentuate flavors, but in this case it accentuated the ominous absence of flavor. Instead, I tasted the thousands of miles this fruit had traveled, the carbon emissions wasted, the gloved hands that aborted the berries before their ripening.
“I think I prefer the apple,” Jeremy said.
Rachel and I screamed with laughter. Jeremy joined in, while John looked at us, confused. I wiped tears from my eyes as I tried to explain to John why it was so funny: I thought it was only me who was freaked out that blueberries had no flavor, because I was so high! But Rachel and Jeremy were also freaked out about the blueberries, though they thought it was because they were high. When really, we were all thinking of it at the same time, in sync, I said ecstatically. And there we have the bonding effect of weed: the creeping paranoia that no one else shares the intensity of your sensations, before the euphoric wash of relief that your sensations are actually shared by all—that you are, in fact, not alone.
We decided to buy snacks at the gas station convenience store. Traffic sped past us as we walked for ten minutes along the main thoroughfare. I always found perambulating in a neighborhood where everyone else drove to be a terrible, dehumanizing experience. We were such vulnerable bipeds, so exposed and isolated and open to abuse. Anyone could pelt us with a Wendy’s milkshake as they drove by. But then, I have always been sensitive to the white noise of whooshing traffic. If I were locked in a room with a recording of whooshing traffic playing twenty-four hours a day, I’d probably hang myself.
At the store, we purchased seven varieties of chips and four varieties of ice cream chocolate bars. I felt timid as I slid them across the counter. The gas station clerk knew. Those chips gave up my condition just like buying a pregnancy test would. We brought our food items back to John’s apartment. Now well-stocked, crunching on a Doritos Fiery Habanero-flavored rolled tortilla chip, I recalled a YA novel that I used to love where the protagonist, Hannah, finds a time portal and goes back in time to befriend a farm girl from the 1800s. Hannah has to live in the present day, but she returns frequently, each time smuggling back something modern, like a Coke, or bubble gum, or a transistor radio, to give to the farm girl. “Who’s the little devil in the box?” the farm girl asks as she gently shakes the transistor radio.
I too wanted a friend from the 1800s upon whom I could impress gifts from the future. What would I bring? How would I explain it? What would happen if she tasted this Doritos Fiery Habanero-flavored rolled tortilla chip—would she think she was being poisoned?
After an hour, Jeremy’s older brother, Matt, called Rachel. He and his wife, Minako, had just returned from the playground with their two kids and our two-year-old daughter. They were visiting from Japan and had rented a unit in John’s corporate apartment complex for the week. Matt and Minako were the only ones among us never to have smoked weed. Now that it was legal in Colorado, they wanted to try it. Earlier, Matt had been adamant that we smoke after we put the kids to bed. Matt was the patriarch of the family. He constantly hectored his parents for being passive. Sheeple, he called them—but then he became upset when his parents didn’t do what he told them to do. I was irritated that Matt was calling the shots even though it was Jeremy’s idea to buy the weed. And so, after he and Minako had left with the kids, we’d decided that we might as well get a head start.
Rachel got off the phone and said, “Matt’s not happy with us.”
The late-summer August afternoon stretched on interminably as our high drifted off our bodies like steam. Then Matt was there, annoyed. “Mom, you’re scaring the children! Can you stay away from them?” he told Rachel, who was sitting on the couch, plaiting my daughter’s hair. He kept badgering her, pointing out how strangely she was behaving, even though she was acting normal. By dinnertime, Rachel was near tears.
“Can you tell your brother to back off?” I asked Jeremy.
“If I say anything, he’ll be worse,” Jeremy said.
“Coward,” I said.
For dinner, we went to Tocabe, a Chipotle-style Native American restaurant where we waited in line and picked out the ground meat topping we wanted on our fry bread, which tasted like a fried hamburger bun. It was freezing in the restaurant. The AC must have been down to sixty. I held my daughter’s hand and noticed that it was cold. I told Jeremy that she and I were going to wait outside while everyone finished up. A quick burst of rain had washed away the day’s heat so it was a mild and pleasant room temperature outside. A crow alighted near us, and my daughter shouted pigeon pigeon as we sat on a bench. I looked out at the acres of rain-soaked parking lot and hulking big box stores, scanning for something else to hold my gaze. The architecture was like the massive Communist buildings I had seen in Beijing, which gave me the feeling a giant shoe was about to step on me.
Later that night, after we put the kids down, we passed around the vape again. Matt and Minako chose the edibles. “I don’t feel a thing,” Matt said. “Do you feel anything?”
“I don’t think so,” Minako said, and furrowed her brow.
Jeremy suggested we all go in the hot tub, since it might make them feel stoned. The grandparents good-naturedly waved us off, saying they would stay and watch the kids.
It took forever to leave the building. We had to keep keying our card to gain access from the elevator to the lobby to the game room and finally out to the courtyard pool. I felt like I was in FBI headquarters. Most of the residents in the corporate apartment complex were recent transplants like John, but they were younger, bro-types who had moved to Denver to work in the growing tech industry. “From cow-town to tech-town,” the local newspaper declared.
Several people were already in the Jacuzzi. We slid inside the hot tub and awkwardly huddled away from the other group until we heard John approaching; he had changed his mind about staying in with the kids. “OK guys, make room!” he shouted, splashing into the hot tub and sloshing water over the ledge.
“Like an Alka-Seltzer!” he said.
Almost immediately, John started up a conversation with the other group. Sensing entrapment, two of the people excused themselves and got out, abandoning their friend, whom John peppered with his deejay interview questions. When the man replied that he was from Charlotte, North Carolina, John announced that his son and daughter-in-law had come all the way from Japan. The guy perked up when he heard the word “Japan.” He’d spent a semester in Japan when he was an undergraduate, he said.
“I like Japan but I can’t live there,” said the guy. “It’s really formal.”
“Yeah man,” Matt said, “you have to wear a business suit wherever you go.”
“But the food is incredible.”
“You can’t beat the food. It is so fresh and pure.”
While Matt and the guy traded cultural insights about Japan, Minako nodded along, occasionally offering an “uh-huh” or “it’s true.” I had always felt awkward around Minako in these gatherings. I even felt awkward when Jeremy mentioned he had a Japanese sister-in-law to our friends, as if I could read their thoughts: Oh your brother is also married to an Asian woman? Does an Asian fetish run in the family? Often, I followed up by explaining that Minako and Matt had met in high school when they were in Cleveland, where Minako was an international student and Matt was a computer geek. Both of them had no one else to go to the prom with, so they went together and they’ve been together ever since.
“Isn’t that sad?” I opined. “They’ve never fucked anyone else, or at least I don’t think they have. What do you think, Jeremy? Do you think they’ve fucked anyone else?”
Minako was quiet and mild-mannered. She gave generic answers to my attempts at conversation: “How was your trip to Seattle?” “It was very nice but it rained a lot.” “Seattle’s known for its rain.” “Yes, it is.” I suspected that her bland pleasantries were deployed as a defense mechanism, so that she’d be left alone. Smoking weed didn’t open her up; she was the same, smiling, nodding along, as her husband and the guy talked about the food in Hokkaido, with John offering bits of his own trivia here and there.
I couldn’t take it. I excused myself and dived into the pool. It felt marvelous. I swam deep in the blue-lit water. I felt like I was in the sternum of a blue whale. I surfaced, surrounded by luminous white lights. I was the last one alive on this earth. An Asian woman, not a man. But then I realized I couldn’t be last remaining survivor. I had no survival skills. I would die so quickly.
My daughter was silent in my arms, awake yet absolutely still, as if she sensed that I was summoning every ounce of sobriety not to keel over. We were outside the apartment at midnight, waiting for my husband to pull around with the car. Between our hotel and the apartment, there was a colony of prairie dogs in a giant dirt lot slated for another condo development. Every time we walked past it during the day, my daughter cried doggies as dozens of prairie dogs popped out of their holes and ducked back in. They scratched nits out of their ears, picked at each other’s fur, nibbled on long-stemmed grass, as if they were still out in the wide open plains instead of being hemmed in on all sides by new development. I squinted to see if I could spot any in the dark, but they were probably all underground, in their honeycomb of burrows, each family of prairie dogs piled together in its own air pocket, sleeping.
I was nauseous because I had smoked too much indica and sativa. Can you mix the two? But then I had also drunk too much. We had all continued hanging out after the pool. Jeremy refused to acknowledge my increasingly frantic signs that we needed to leave, until I stomped into the room where the children were sleeping and peeled our daughter from her cousin’s bed.
In five minutes, Jeremy will pull up, and I will sit in the car with my daughter on my lap in the front seat. Britney Spears, in another lifetime, was pilloried for being a bad mom because she had her own kid on her lap while she drove. But I will tell myself that our hotel is only a block away. Then, as the car lurches forward, I will demand that Jeremy stop. I will hand our daughter to him and stagger out of the car to puke up the fry bread and all the chips I consumed onto the dirt of the vacant lot.
But that five minutes takes forever. The stars seem to shiver. Once, Jeremy and I had looked at the stars when we were stoned, and I got mad because he aimed his phone at the sky so an app could help him identify the constellations.
“You’re ruining the moment,” I said.
Now, it was just mother and daughter alone, with billions of unnamable stars as witness, so many stars they seemed to move, or was the earth moving, or was it that my vision was blurring? I straightened up. I pretended I was an armchair—inanimate, sturdy, and hard. I wasn’t going to fall over, pulling my sweet breathing daughter down with me. We were the only ones alive in Centennial.
Cathy Park Hong’s book of creative nonfiction, Minor Feelings, is forthcoming this spring. She is the author of three poetry collections. A recipient of the Windham-Campbell Prize at Yale University, she is the poetry editor of The New Republic.
Image: Katie Wheeler, Humidity.