Hal was one of those people who stays with you. We met at camp the summer before we would both start high school. He was from Darien, Connecticut. But Hal was somewhat of a black sheep over there: a dead head, spacey, always lost in thought. He had a rebellious side that usually butted up against his buttoned up surroundings. He was almost expelled from Brunswick for writing an essay on reflecting in the time he dropped acid on the train to Madison square garden. But I met him before all that when he was still an innocent polyp.
My parents had shelled out for the camp where I met Hal. It was My mom, having grown up backpacking through sagebrush fields in the shadow of the Tetons, who wanted to instill a love of the outdoors in me. There were a few other kids who were there for the same reasons, but we were a motley bunch. There was always one kid whose parents sent him under the pretense that four weeks in the wilderness would return their son fit and in shape. (Not quite) there were the kids whose parents just wanted their kids out of the house, and I assumed Hal fell under this category.
Our troop of kids amounted to a weird little melting pot of prepubescent teens from the antipodes of the country: three from the south, six from the northeast and two of us from California. We were was led by two not-so-fearless camp counselors, who were often overwhelmed by the middle school energy that fueled our back of the van conversations.
while exasperated, they did manage to lead us on five and six day treks into the backcountry of the bitteroots range in Montana, northern Yosemite and havasupai, a valley on the outskirts of the grand canyon. On monotonous afternoons, long stretches of trail, without even lunch to look forward to, Hal and I surmised what the inside of our free-spirited camp counselor’s mind would look like. Was Hal predisposed to the type of quandaries you consider while high? Even sober, we Imagined pink dunes and dr Seussian tuff a luff trees.
Summer ended and Hal and I spent the weeks before school started taking on AIM. I still remember his screen name, winkdum8, but can’t remember where it came from. His sisters can’t seem to remember either, maybe a relic of Hal’s taste for largely overlooked cultural tidbits.
I didn’t see Hal again until after we had both graduated college. I had just gotten back from a stint in Myanmar. It was my first trip alone, and I had gained a new sense of extrovertedness. I felt curious and excited by other people, a feeling that had escaped me during my four years on the east coast, surrounded by people who would become mutual fund managers or worse, management consultants.
I had been home for maybe three days when I got a message from a familiar face.
I drove my mom’s Prius into the city, and pretty soon I was walking with Hal—after all these years!—into a dive bar near Nob Hill. Hal had the same beautiful eyes that peaked out of frizzle-frazzle eyelashes, but he was different, more frank.
I ordered just a beer since I was driving. Hal ordered a beer and a shot of whiskey, downing both pretty quickly. I don’t remember much from before, but pretty soon I remember we got to it. He was telling me that he was as recovering heroin addict, and has been sober about a year.
His frankness produced a strange effect in me: in the face of his tragedy, everything else, the things I had worried about earlier that day seemed trivial. I relaxed a little, there was safety in knowing nothing that happened to me, or between us, could be as horrible as what he’d been through.
We talked until 3 a.m. before moseyed our way to Mel’s diner, worn out. While Hal was ordering, I found a booth and sat down.
Two guys, stammering, rocking around, just kind of slide in across from me. I didn’t protest. Their mannerisms had the paint of something ingested, and their pupils bulged and skirted around, reading my reactions.
I was still wearing my traveler’s mindset, and agreed they could sit there, babbling in a language I could faintly understand. I wondered what they were high on, not really needing to know the answer. Hal came back, visibly frustrated by their intrusion, but he allowed it.
Hal was a little further along than I was. I was at two beers, mostly just intoxicated by his story. Hal had drank an actual quantity of real beers and whiskey. When one of our companions offered the whiskey bottle to Hal, he didn’t think twice. He took a long swig. It was then that I saw the ripped piece of paper in the bottle. A sheet of LSD, 100 doses, ripped in half. But it was 4 a.m. or somewhere around there, and I touched the bottle to my lips for good measure.
We finished our food.
Pretty soon, Hal and I were catapulted through the famed doors of perception—we were both sky high on an unexpected dose of strong, Owsley-grade, LSD. I can only imagine what Hal was experiencing—the touch of the bottle to my lips was enough to swirl my vision.
We wandered up Nob Hill and into the park at the top, I remember the give of the bounce-y ground underneath the playground, and I remember us babbling in the same language those two in the diner were speaking, which is to say we were muttering to each other, excited but serious. I remember him holding me as we rocked back and forth on the squishy playground floor, exclaiming: “you’re just a little chicken leg!”
This was the mark of someone who has a profound impact on you: they roll back into your life after seven years, and you find yourself clutching them, on the top of a mountain in a strange city, giggling and rocking. Only someone who has traveled to the farthest reaches of his own mind, could take on an unexpected dose, and just push through the experience. I felt safe with Hal because I know he had been further long this road and come back alive.
At some point, I convinced Hal we couldn’t stay in the park all night, and we snuck into the hotel room he was sharing with his sisters. We (miraculously) feel asleep.
I woke up early the next morning, even though the foggy morning light wasn’t coming through the blackout shades. I quietly grabbed all of my things—fears of his parents coming to wake him abounded.
I made it out to the hotel hallway, and exhaled. A scene that unraveled before me with all the colors and symmetry of scene in a Wes Anderson film set—a maroon rug, a window framed by dollhouse curtains, pastel colors that also seemed deep—I walked, still holding my shoes this notably symmetrical window at the end of the hall. The drama of my discovery, pulling back the thin cotton curtain, and San Francisco squirmed before my eyes.
Damn it—still tripping very hard. I check my phone. It’s not even 8 a.m.
That trip was different than the other times I had Halingly taken acid. I felt like I was careening into the night, but everything felt even more unhinged because I had never planned for it.
I walked around sleepy streets of San Francisco. It was so quiet. No motorcycles screaching around corners, honking like it was an insurance policy. It was serene. Last night had been wild, but we were okay, alive. I had just a little taste for
But as I descended down Nob Hill, and found my way into the financial district, things descended quickly. This trip was lasting longer than I had bargained for. I was lucky, my best friend’s little sister and brother, came to get me. They were in college so they understood.
Fast forwarding some more. I’m a little older. Another summer, this one spent in a small town—only dirt roads—in the south of Chile. A flutter of Facebook messages from Hal, asking about my friend Kat, do I know her? What’s she like? Hal had met her on a dating app.
A small pang. Hal had always occupied that space that gets written during the formative, mystical times when you are young and don’t know the endings yet. When everything is still possible.
I tell him to go for it. Kat and I both share a tattoo on on inner lips that says IHOP, an homage to the house we lived in during our senior year of college, not the pancake franchise. And I did love the idea that Kat had found Hal in the wild west of net York city. That everything-is-connected-and-everything-matters sensation.
Hal and I start to talk more, now that kat is our common denominator. Hal keeps sending me articles. We talk about them. He explains how AA is a scam, too religious. But he is off heroin. He’s in law school. Started a student advocacy group for drug policy reform.
He thinks he can be heroin sober without giving up everything else (xanax, alcohol, more LSD). He starts a reform group at school for addressing addiction issues. He tells me he relapsed last year with a friend. His friend died. Hal runs a race in his memory. I keep checking in with Hal.
It’s already the afternoon on Christmas Day. I hadn’t checked my phone all day, and when I saw two missed calls from Kat, I just knew.
I hurried out of the atria, my grandparent’s senior living complex, with our dog, Huxley, in tow. I sat on some concrete planters outside a Starbucks and held in to huxley’s leash.
I called her back, knowing I should have answered those calls.
“Hal died, Jamie.”
Then came the details. It’s sick, but sometimes you have to know. He left Kat’s house, had just met her parents for the first timely Christmas Eve, drove to his home, and relapsed. His dad found him in his bed.
I cried and Huxley stayed close, not pulling.
When I originally wrote about this, my writing class assumed guilt on the part of the narrator. I was an enabler by doing drugs with a known addict. But anyone who has some experience with psychedelics knows the breed of deep introspection isn’t quite the same as the indulgence of opiates or alcohol. I won’t pretend I think this trip was of the healing sort described in Micheal Pollen’s book on the subject, but I don’t believe that psychedelics should be lumped in with other recreational drugs, and I don’t think our night on top of Nob Hill was harmful to his recovery.
I did feel guilt, but for another reason entirely. Kat had confided in me, telling me Hal was still unstable, he still was prescribed a lot of Xanax, drank a lot and smoked near constantly. She was scared. If he did relapse, she didn’t know if she’d be able to handle it.
I think I brushed her off. You can’t live your life like that. How can you say no just to protect yourself against events that may never transpire. Kat had clearly imagined the possibility of Hal’s death, knew it was something that would break her, and I told her that line of thinking wasn’t fair. That you can never know, and how would you ever know if you don’t try.
Kat really felt Hal’s death. She became close with his family, with his sisters, they grieved together. She would call me from New York. I never know what to say to people when they tell me they are just so sad.
I was the link that brought them together. And now Kat was watching this horrifying tragedy unfold. Being with him the night before, and then getting a call from his parents the next day. How gruesome.
Even before Hal, heroin had always fascinated me. I remember a documentary with a graph of a person’s emotional experience, their highs and lows, plotted in a series of sine curves, up and down, but always close to center. After heroin, the line shot upwards, far past the other peaks, and then plunged. Your life irrevocably intensified.
I wondered how the drug had stuck so many creatives onto its sticky surface. My favorites: Jerry Garcia, Kurt Cobain, Trey Anastasio. Maybe they were predisposed, they already had an on the road, post-show-anything-goes type of reality, and so heroin just fits into their puzzle.
Hal was also a variety of celebrity in my mind. He was the one who got it into my head to go to the east coast, to seek out an elitist university, the best one I could get into. And just like Hal, I was the black sheep. I guess I didn’t truly heed his advice or I would have taken his distaste for east coast bullshit more seriously.
Hal was the first person to introduce me to the band, Phish, who I still love. Though middle, high school, college and after, they’re one of the only bands that have stuck with me. I’ve been to fifteen shows. I’ve seen them in upstate New York, and in DC, in San Diego and once in Vermont. I brought my mom. She has picked up me up from so many shows, seen me babbling, I wanted to show her what it was like inside. My dad and I have been twice.
The band gets a bad rap. To the untuned ear, it sounds like a cacophony of notes, absolute pandemonium. Their fans can be elitist and dismissive. A common greeting: so how many shows have you been to? followed by judgement if you’re not in the triple digits. Every show is a circus, beginning with the scene that unfolds in the parking lot before, an exchange of tickets, someone selling doses, the people, homeless-looking usually with dogs in tow, who actually follow them around all summer. There’s an after party too, a supposed mafia panders tanks of nitrous oxide. Twenty bucks Hal get you three balloons, enough to make voices bounce back and forth in your head at exponential speeds.
I still love the band, but there are now dark pieces. I know Hal couldn’t listen to them after he’d gotten off heroin. When we were both still in college, Hal and I were at the same show at Saratoga Performing Arts Center, lovingly referred to as SPAC by fans. Hal and I made plans to meet up at the campground after the show. But when I found his tent, his friends told me he was already asleep inside. I later learned he had been shooting up. He was in a nod.
Phish was too tangled up in his drug-clouded days, which I think is a far too common of an experience, many people kick Phish when they’re trying to get clean in earnest.
When I went to see Between Me and My Mind, a documentary covering the band’s creative process, there was one part that stuck with me. A fan encounters Trey, the lead guitarist, in the street. He can’t really get out the words at first, can’t explain why it’s so fortuitous that he has run into Trey now, but then he manages to say that he’s just a week sober. He’s holding back tears, Trey was his inspiration.
Trey had been through his own trials with heroin, but got sober after being apprehended by policemen while driving through White Hall, New York. Since then, Trey has been an advocate for drug court, speaking out about his own recovery and how drug court gave him a second chance. Trey is still clean, but drug culture is still a big part of the shows.
Hal has been gone for a year. I wish I had some satisfying conclusion for you. I wish I could blame myself, tell you where I went wrong, and how I could have been better for him. I was just an auxiliary character in Hal’s life, but maybe I could find the places where I failed him as a friend. I wish I could tell you I stopped listening to the band that brought us together. I wish I could definitively say that they are bad, and here’s why. Things would fit neatly into a box. Here is where things went wrong. Everything can be explained.
Even with all of the horror following his death—I truly felt responsible for bringing tragedy into her and her family’s life—I’m not sure I can say I would have given her different advice. I don’t think I could have told her to break things off with Hal. They were falling in love and her fear stemmed from the fact that she truly cared about him.
But I can’t. That’s what feels so strange about death, even with someone in the grips of a fight with heroin, it feels senseless. The mind wants to find blame, some reason for why. The people sitting around the table in my writing class wanted to resolve the story of Hal’s death. It’s easier to wrap your head around a death that could have been avoided.
I don’t think we can rewrite our experiences, finding the places where we were wrong. I think there are alternate realities where Hal is still here, maybe with Kat, maybe not. Ones in which Hal became a lawyer and had little black sheep of his own. And so I don’t regret the fact that we were both unHalingly dosed that night. And I still love Phish.