Tell me how it gets started, this sudden fashion for a drug. It’s more than a fashion, it’s a kind of chemical chain letter, a telepathic group think on the most arbitrary of compulsions. Everyone, listen up. From now on we are going to ingest five hundred milligrams of third rail scrapings infused with tincture of lighter fluid. It’s a tremendous rush, great with dance music, carbohydrates and traffic fatalities. Be sure not to take it on an empty stomach.
One day everyone is ingesting Special K and the next it’s e or bath salts or opium. The rumors of danger, brain damage, and sudden freak outs deter hardly anyone at all inclined to get high. It’s like someone grabs the frayed rope at the cliff’s edge, jumps and comes back laughing and babbling, and suddenly a hundred people want that rope, then a thousand, then a million…
This drug was prescribed at one time, so it is said, for anxiety, attention deficit disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and clinical fuckedupedness. Of course, others have said that it was invented by the Stasi as an interrogation drug, some that it was used for stomach complaints. No one knows. But it’s easy to understand why those stories about psycho-pharmacological applications got such wide play. It’s a mellow drug, very soothing and calm, so mellow you had to believe that this was the result of extensive study and refinement. The street name for it was “the package.” That sounds like an all-inclusive tour, or male genitalia, or, a package, but when you took the drug you understood immediately.
The initial effect, maybe half an hour after you took the pill, was like you were being swaddled in something soft and pleasant, wrapped in a warm, deliciously comfortable blanket from head to toe, so only your eyes were uncovered. That sensation gradually separated, somehow, grew and changed dimension, so you weren’t covered or wrapped; you were enclosed or boxed. There were walls around you, and they protected you even though no one could see them. They dulled the noises and distractions outside the box, so you could relax, you could feel safe. At the same time, your cognitive functioning was otherwise intact. You could drive, operate machinery, walk or talk or fuck, whatever you liked, but you were ‘inside,’ enclosed and untouchable. It was kind of floaty and tranquil, like being underwater in a tank with glass walls all around but you could breathe and move normally. It’s true that the drug tended to encourage a feeling of detachment, of the world being ‘out there,’ oddly muffled and distant. But only if you let it get that way; you could always come back, come to attention.
There were no side effects. There was no evidence of long-term impairment or damage. Pretty soon everyone was taking it in some form or other. That is everyone as in everyone as in how many people drink coffee… or use eye drops… A lingo developed around it, as always happens. When you took a tab you were ‘getting boxed.’ Having sex under the influence was ‘putting a bow on it’ or, more crudely, ‘slamming her walls.’ Taking a little extra for a hard day was ‘taping it down.’ And the jokes, of course; how many boxies does it take to change a light bulb? I can’t hear you? or What’s a light bulb?
Then the difficulties. With so many people on the drug questions arose. Who was boxed and who wasn’t? If you weren’t contained then what was the matter with you, what kind of person were you? Imagine a conversation between someone who was in and someone who was out; how would that be possible? I mean, imagine a day without walls: the obscenity of such an experience, the unfiltered flood of sensation penetrating from all directions… It was worse than being naked, it was inviting environmental rape. Better just to stay home with the shades down than endure a day out without walls, without a container.
As time went by such deviants were rarer and rarer. The drug was the answer. It was the missing chemical found at last, the latch on the door. How awful to think of a world without it. Imagine a world without penicillin or anesthesia, without electricity. Imagine a world without the box.
So what was missing? Only the recognition, the ritual acknowledgement of the change the box had wrought in the lives of so many. Somehow the idea of public festivals began to circulate in social media. Mass gatherings in the major cities. There needn’t be any big production; just gather and be in the box, quietly and peacefully, everyone contained. Even the Dalai Lama couldn’t pull off something like that. Pick a season, pick a day. How about the end of the summer, not Labor Day but a bit after Labor Day? It was a beautiful idea, crowds assembling in Times Square, the Washington Mall, the Boston Common, all over the world, and just quietly sharing the protected tranquility of invisible walls.
So it happened. The crowds gathered, beginning in the morning and growing larger and larger as the day continued. The plan was to take the pill on arrival. Who knows how many did that. Maybe that is a minor detail. Maybe it was the proximity of bodies that had the effect, or maybe it was something about the expectations for the day interacting with the psychopharmacological properties of the drug, the way drinking alone is not the same as drinking with friends. Maybe there is something about crowds in public places, something unpredictable.
The crowds reached a peak at the end of the evening rush hour. Traffic came to a stop. The usual noise of each city faded to a background whisper. Hundreds of thousands of people simply gathered in the public square and stood there in mutual quiet and isolation. The sun went down. Gradually, the proximity of so many bodies in a defined space became evident. And on a more subtle level, in the exchange of oxygen and pheromones, of scents and the chemicals to suppress, them, of human warmth, the chemical effects of the Box changed.
The walls fell. And the screams brought down the stars.
Christopher Moylan is an associate professor of English at NYIT where he publishes fiction, poetry and literary criticism. His work has received various literary awards.