Amtrak trains have tracks that stretch across America’s West Coast all the way from Seattle to San Diego. Views of pristine coast and wild, beautiful places slide by out of the windows – but I’d booked the train from LA to San Francisco because it was cheaper than flying, and all I knew was that I had twelve hours of sitting to get through. I brought books. I bought salad and gum at a train station convenience store. I hoped there would be wifi. What I got instead is a seat next to a guy in his mid-twenties who offers me a crash course in how to buy cocaine on the deep web and a sketchy connection to his phone hotspot. Also candied edibles. Welcome to California, I think, and chew. I don’t catch his name.
It hits when I’m halfway through my beer. Suddenly the words on the page I’m reading begin to shatter backwards through the paper as their edges light up, gold-rimmed. The first time I’d gotten seriously high, it had felt like there were flies in my forehead – little popping feet tapping around in there. I’m past the flies this time: everything slows and disconnects, as though I’m a sticker that has been removed from a book and put down in a slightly different place. Sounds echo, and so do my thoughts, spewing a debris of noise and spawning further thoughts in their wake. My hand feels like it’s cutting through putty as I raise it to my face. My face doesn’t feel like my face; it’s too cold and too smooth. All of these thoughts crash and reverberate around my head with searing speed, leaving jagged coloured patterns that take a while to fade.
I look outside, but all of the cacti outside the window have turned into fractals with white, accented edges and they won’t turn back. It’s too bright, and suddenly the sun isn’t hot any more. I look down. The words pulse on the page in front of me, and their blurry backwards squirming makes me feel sick. Moving through jelly, I shut the book and try to put it away. I see the guy next to me raise his hand and hear the disconnected sound of chips being crunched in his mouth. Thoughts begin to crowd in way too fast, as though I see a chain of thought appear all at once; paint splattered over canvas, and I know the answer to every question I pose, and that’s terrifying, and suddenly it’s very cold, and how do I know that what this man sitting next to me gave me was edibles candy? I’ve just taken drugs from a stranger on a train in a country where I know nobody. But the more insidious, paralysing thought slides in with a chill: I can’t get back from this weird echoey world.
My mouth begins to taste like iron; a coca-cola twang in my jaw that adds to the alien colours and sounds around me. As everything slides further out of focus I try to control my voice:
‘I’m panicking right now. This is too strong.’ I couldn’t focus on the guy’s face.
‘Nobody ever died from weed, dude,’ he reminds me.
‘How long will this last?’
‘Three, four hours max. Don’t sweat it.’
By the time he finishes his half-baked reassurance I’ve already asked – and answered – this question:
‘What does hell look like?’
Hell looks like being trapped somewhere cold and dark with a window. You can see out of the window, but everyone around you is a stranger. It wouldn’t even matter if someone you knew was there to hug you, because you wouldn’t be able to feel it. It would just be you and your thoughts, knowing the answer to everything at the same time as you ask yourself the question, smearing your thoughts across the walls loudly and forever. That is what hell would be, and being trapped in it for any length of time is an unbearable thought; no opt-out, no purgatory. Taut agitation passing through me in cold, sharp spikes of emotion, I hold my phone tight on my lap and my bag between my legs, and I try to shut my eyes and pretend I’m asleep. The man in the seat next to me has slid out of his skin and is hovering just beside me, but I can’t let him know I’ve noticed.
I phase in and out of something like sleep. I lose my hearing and then I lose my sight, weaving in and out between jagged dream-worlds and shattered sunlight. I might be hallucinating, or the images might be what was actually going on in the train around me – I’d lost the ability to tell the difference. Voices filter through weirdly sometimes, and the same with colours or light. The blurred form next to me, alternately a man and a disembodied hovering, chews and chews endlessly; train conductors announce in garbled train-language; they announce, chitter, their laughter is spikes of sound their voices are puzzle pieces not fitting the grating the seats are grey cells in a beehive and the water outside has blended with the sky I can’t touch any of it even my own face my jaw is cement my heart is mallet-tapping soon it will trip and stop beating but at least that will stop the thoughts that hide the windows like leaves in a thick jungle. And I learn that hell is something else too; it’s complete disembodiment; it’s a lack of touch, of physical reference-points.
Two things stand out to me from that train ride. I can remember clearly the moment when I realised the world looked like geometry; cactus-fractals, blazing white and shifting against a blue Californian sky – and the feel of the shower water against my skin the next morning, just as soon as the cacti had begun to look normal again. I turn the nozzle too far, and for a moment the heat stings my skin – but I quickly push it back to warm again as the steam curls upwards to touch my cheek.