The Greatest Caper That Never Was
Just before I left on my most recent international adventure my parents came to Brooklyn for dinner. Upon entering my apartment, they thrust a Xeroxed, stapled sheaf of paper in my face.
“Just sign this,” said my dad.
He had put a little “sign here,” Post-It flag on the last page. My dad is an accountant, in fact my accountant, and most of our family and friends’ accountant. He has all kinds of little flags to show you where to sign on your tax returns. Every year my return arrives in the mail with a very official looking cover page full of instructions like “file” and “1040-ES” and “registered return-receipt.” At the bottom of the cover page my dad signs, “Love, DAD.”
My dad had brought his own pen and was offering it to me. “Go ahead, sign it.”
“What is it?”
“It’s travel insurance. We read about it in the Times. We figured you should have it so we got it for you.”
“Because God knows what might happen to you!” added my mother. “We don’t know what you do, with Joni, in Peru.”
“It’s just a good idea,” said my dad. “It’s just good to have.”
I leafed through the policy and saw the phrases, “In the event of death,” “repatriation of remains,” and “$250,000.”
“You got me life insurance?”
“It’s health insurance. In the event of an emergency you can be airlifted by helicopter.”
I suddenly imagined myself falling in a ditch, as I often do in South America, but this time instead of escaping with a skinned knee that I could then happily photograph for the next week for an ongoing project I like to call “Time Lapse Wound Heal,” breaking some critical bone that punctured some critical organ. In my daydream, a chopper suddenly appeared from behind an Andean peak, scooped me up and deposited me in the Intensive Care unit of North Shore Hospital, where my worried parents would be waiting with an armload of homeopathic remedies. Do airlifted trauma patients go through customs, I wondered? Or do you get a pass and can therefore bring whatever goodies you can fit under that scratchy-looking blanket that gets belted onto the stretcher?
“Just sign it, so we can go eat,” encouraged my father.
I signed here, initialed there, and dated it.
“And Emily, please, listen to me,” said my mother. I could tell she was about to begin her usual pre-travel admonition. Every year, as she grows more resigned to my advancing age and autonomy, the admonition grows more specific. It used to be, “Don’t take drugs or walk around strange places at night.” Then it became, “Don’t take drugs AND walk around strange places at night.” This being my fourth trip to South America in as many years, her plea for my safety was a chain of prepositions. “I know you and Joni are very adventurous together. But please, don’t take strange drugs with strange people in the middle of the night in the middle of the street.”
“Don’t worry, Mom,” I said. “I’ll be fine. I’ll be back in a few weeks.”
That’s what I always say to my mom when she accurately worries in that psychic maternal way about all the things she knows I’m doing the minute I get out of her sight.
Several weeks later at two in the morning when the acid was really beginning to kick in I thought about motherhood and the cycle of life, and the universe and birth and death and love and theft. I thought about how much my mom would probably like to see the moon on acid from high up in the Andes, but probably never would, so it was a good thing that at least someone was, and that someone was me.
We had timed the acid perfectly so that it would really get going just as the lunar eclipse was beginning. I’d never done acid before but I figured a full lunar eclipse of a full moon in the Andes might be an auspicious time to try new things. My friend the expatriate subsistence farmer had kindly tested the acid on two previous occasions, in two different denominations, and I was thus presented with a psychedelic experience usually available only in Amsterdam, one in which the effects of various quantities of the drug you are considering taking are laid out for you with clinical precision.
We ate the tabs and made a fire. As the acid came on, we shivered, but not in a cold way, more in a feverish way. You could really tell it was kicking in when you looked at the flames of the candles or the fire, and you went, “Ooooooooooh.”
It had been a while since I looked at the flame of a candle and went, “Ooooooooooh.” I don’t think it’s any accident that the drugs known for encouraging deep insights sometimes followed by psychotic episodes make their presence in our brains known by heightening our appreciation of the one thing that’s always separated us from animals, our ability to make and maintain fires. Well, that and the opposable thumb. As hallucinogens are kicking in, the next thing I look at with wonder after a fire is usually my opposable thumb.
The acid made us quiet, and then it made us chatty. It made us cold and then it made us wiggly. It also gave us the ability to stop time and therefore the path of the moon across the sky with our minds and re-start it at will, but sadly there is no documentation of this phenomenon. After the show was over and we had gently dropped the moon behind the trees with our minds and were watching the clouds and saying, “Oooooooooh,” I started telling the story of how I had been robbed, and it was there, still peaking on acid at 10,000 feet of elevation that I hatched the greatest criminal plot of my short criminal history.
“Maybe it never would have happened if I hadn’t taken the diazepam,” I began.
“What’s diazepam?” asked the expatriate subsistence farmer.
“Well you see,” I said, “It’s for the bus.”
“But what is it?”
“You take it on the bus, when you want to erase time. So it’s like the bus never happened.”
“But what is it?”
“I don’t know, exactly,” I said. “It’s for the bus.”
Earlier in the trip, Joni and I had decided to check out Ecuador for a change. This entailed an overnight bus across the border. An overnight bus across a border is a fine and terrible thing, much like life. Sometimes on an overnight bus, just as in life, you can live better through chemistry, and so we never get on a bus without a little blister-pack of diazepam, which I now know to be the generic form of Valium but until recently only knew as the thing Joni gives me on the bus.
On the way up to Ecuador, I took one diazepam, queued up the ol’ iPod, and lay back in my broken seat. An indiscernible amount of time later I noticed that I was still having thoughts in my brain and hearing music in my ears, but I could no longer move. I tried to move my limbs but I was paralyzed. It was as if my limbs weighed 10,000 pounds. I tried to fall more deeply asleep, or wake up, but I couldn’t. By some stroke of luck, the song on my iPod ended and was replaced with my soothing nature track, Relaxing Ocean Surf, so I remained calm. After a while Joni poked me and said, “Border.” With this I returned from the place of paralysis, which after some pondering I realized was a state of physical–but not mental–sleep. A later Google search of “sleep paralysis” led me to a troubling but informative Wikipedia article, which revealed that while sleep paralysis is a serious medical condition if it occurs recurrently, but that
“[V]arious studies suggest that many or most people will experience sleep paralysis at least once or twice in their lives.Some reports read that various factors increase the likelihood of both paralysis and hallucinations. These include:
Wikipedia often explains everything.
The episode of sleep paralysis, while intriguing, was not one I particularly wanted to repeat, and so after we spent a few days in the mountains riding horses and hiking to waterfalls and relaxing on the deck of our $9 a night cabin and generally deciding that Ecuador was all right with us but it was time to make like mad for our favorite depraved beach town, there was something we knew not what calling to us from there, when it was time to get back on the overnight bus I took two diazepam instead of one, and I did not have another episode of sleep paralysis. Instead, I slept so soundly that I was a perfect mark for a thief who robs the backpacks of unsuspecting tourists when they’re benignly trying to avoid a second terrifying episode of sleep paralysis.
There are, to be fair, there certain other measures I could have taken to prevent my backpack from being robbed, besides not taking two tablets of what I now know to be $0.40 generic Valium and falling into a deep sleep. I could have put my backpack under my legs where I would have felt someone tampering with it. I could have not allowed myself to become pinned under the bulk of the fat lady who was sitting and eventually sleeping in the aisle after all the lights on the bus had been turned off in the middle of the trip. I can see now how drugging myself into unconsciousness on a pitch-black bus under the weight of a fat lady might have made me vulnerable to the kind of theft all tourists fear.
Luckily, I didn’t notice I’d been robbed until we arrived at our destination and I dumped the contents of my backpack onto the bed at our favorite hotel in our favorite depraved beach town. More luckily, I never put my most important stuff (passport, camera, notebook, iPod, phone, money) in my backpack, and consequently the bus thieves only got my glasses and a little bag full of chargers for all the stuff travelers never had before this sad media-saturated millennium.
“Joni!” I cried. “I’ve been ROBBED! They took my GLASSES!”
“It’s funny,” she said, “how incredibly nerdy and Jewish you sound when you say that.”
A friend of mine had his glasses stolen once.
“How did they get them from you?” I asked him.
“They said, ‘give me your fucking glasses,'” he said.
“Give me your fucking glasses,” is not a nerdy, Jewish thing to say. However, “I’ve been ROBBED! They took my GLASSES!” somehow is.
After the beach, up in the mountains, during the acid, after the eclipse, I suddenly remembered something, something nerdy and Jewish.
“I have travel insurance!” I exclaimed.
“So diazepam is Valium!” said the expatriate subsistence farmer. “Why didn’t you just say so in the first place?”
“What difference does it make, it’s for the bus! Now listen, travel insurance! My parents got it for me! I can claim the loss of my stolen glasses!”
“We’ll go to the police and make a report!” assured the expatriate subsistence farmer.
“I’ll get new chargers!” I said. “And new glasses! I’ll replace my stolen property! My parents will be thrilled!”
A moment passed. We contemplated the clouds. They seemed to be breathing. The whole universe seemed to breathing in unison. Dogs barked around the valley. Years ago, when I came to this valley for the first time, I had taken different hallucinogens and heard different dogs bark. I had been waiting all this time to hear them bark again, calling and answering, howling at the moon and passing cars. Water ran in the ancient canals and wind whistled through the ancient Incan temple. The expatriate subsistence farmer had once shown me how his property was bordered with little cement cones that said, “Zona Intangible”–The Intangible Zone. I had made it back here, to the intangible zone. It would be a great place to disappear forever.
“It’s not just travel insurance,” I mused. “It’s life insurance. $250,000.”
“I could fake my own death and live off the dough,” I went on. “Take to the road forever. I just gotta get my parents in on the scam and I’m golden. Their worry and prudence will become my freedom and debauchery. It’s perfect. It’s poetic! It’s what they intended, in some strange way. It’s as if their worrying about me keeps me safe, and yet in this other way it’s only through the act of defying their worry, disproving their worry–and therefore my own–that I become free. It is only in our triumph over the fear of death that we are truly alive.”
For the next several hours this plot seemed like the culmination of all of my life so far, but in the end the farm was too isolated and the moon too beautiful to bring it to fruition. We did eventually go to the police. By indulging the young cop in flirtation while exuding a patience helped along by liberal applications of dope and sambuca I extracted, over a six-hour period, a typed police report detailing all the stolen stuff, if not the death certificate no doubt required to reap the $250,000 reward for expiring in a foreign country. I sorely regret this now, as if I were at least officially dead I would probably not owe the remaining estimated taxes kindly calculated for me by one “Love, DAD,” but he told me later he doesn’t think he sprang for the life insurance, just the emergency helicopter, and so my criminal plot was never based in reality. Stopping the moon in its tracks and holding it there for hours, however, I’m quite certain really happened.