Everything about existence is perspective, and no aspect of perspective is funnier than time.
I have been a member of an existential little group called the Mormon Church for years. At the time of this story, I was a kind of pastor in the church, called an elders’ quorum president.
My neighbor was also a member of an existential organization, this one called the U.S. Army. Like me, my friend was a lifer.
While he was in Iraq, we would write emails planning for his next visit home at Christmas. We had been hearing about synthetic marijuana, which neither Uncle Sam nor Joseph Smith had yet commented on. I told Karl I’d get some in time for his Christmas visit.
A smoke-shop virgin, I tried not to gape at the wares. The kids in front of me were buying a package of salvia, so I assumed this was the synthetic weed I sought. I mistakenly asked for the same.
On Christmas, I walked next door armed with a lamp-sized bong and a pocket full of concentrated trouble. While the kids played with their new toys and our wives prepared the big fancy Christmas dinner, my friend and I thought to smoke before devouring the turkey feast.
I went first to amuse my pal with the spectacle of his Mormon friend using a bong for the first time. I loaded the big glass bowl with half the foil packet, flash-fried it with a micro-torch, and took the kind of lungful you take to prove to your friend who kills people for a living that you are gruesome enough to hang. It tasted like burning snow tires, but I held my smoke like a hero until the floor beneath me turned into a whirlpool that sucked me into it. Apparently salvia is nothing at all like synthetic marijuana.
I fell, for a short time, down a swirling tube, and when I came back out into light, I was on the superrealistic deck of a small ski boat and vomiting up water. Superrealistic water was coming out of my lungs, along with the kind of coughing that makes your fingertips ache.
Three strangers were gathered around me on the deck, talking excitedly. “Man, we thought you drowned!” The men were helping me off with my life jacket. “You were face down and still and it felt like forever to turn around and pull you out!”
When I stopped coughing, I explained to my waterskiing companions that I actually lived in Alaska and that all of this was superrealistic. As I laughed and knocked on things to show how real everything was, my companions were exchanging worried expressions and rushed me to a nearby clinic.
Apparently, we were in Tyler, Texas—a place about which I had zero previous knowledge. My companions, apparently my friends since kindergarten, told the doctor that I had almost drowned. My lifelong friends expressed concern that I didn’t remember any of them and that I kept saying I lived in Alaska.
The doctor gave me oxygen, hit my knee with a rubber hammer to test my reflexes, and shone a light in my eyes. He eventually told us that permanent amnesia is impossibly rare, and that my brain would probably shake it off in a couple days.
My Tyler friends took me to my superrealistic apartment that was full of things I didn’t remember owning. Everyone was nice enough to leave me grinning in my living room, where I snooped around and waited for the salvia to wear off.
I’d fallen asleep on the couch and in the morning woke to urgent knocking. Paul, apparently my friend, informed me that I hadn’t shown up for work and drove me out to Peterson’s farm, where I blinked at a clipboard all day. Not really even pretending to supervise superrealistic migrant labor for a large apple orchard. Still waiting for the salvia to wear off.
The workday ended, and my friend offered to bring me to his house for dinner. I told him I just wanted to go back to my apartment and wait for this crap to wear off. I shook Paul’s hand and complimented him on how real he seemed, which he didn’t care for.
I slept in the bed the second night, fully expecting to wake up in Alaska. Instead I woke again to Paul knocking. I hadn’t shown up for work again. And this repeated itself for every minute of every day for eight years. I was trapped in Tyler, Texas.
At first I was a man sleepwalking through an imaginary life. I didn’t bother picking up my paychecks until there was no money left in my bank account. I wouldn’t hang out with my friends or answer tedious questions about my memory. I’d just go home every day and sit in my apartment and cry and wonder if I had imagined my life in Alaska.
It took four years to crack me, but after failing to find any trace of my previous life, I accepted that I had sustained brain damage in a near-drowning. The narrative that I had a family in Alaska who loved me began to feel like the kind of escapist fever dream a loser has when his brain goes swimming too long.
The belief that I had brain damage gave me a kind of closure, allowing me to let go of my life in Alaska and start participating in my life in Tyler.
One day at lunch, I told my handful of friends that I wanted to sing in the cover band they were always talking about forming. I started hanging out with them, interfacing through classic rock covers. We developed a kind of shorthand where they knew to include backstory in our conversations when needed, and I learned to stop treating people like they were imaginary.
Then, one day, I was walking across a park to meet my friends, carrying a bucket of chicken, when the grass beneath my feet turned into a whirlpool, and I fell through the ground and back into Alaska.
My now ex-wife was on the ground, holding me around the chest, while I shook with a seizure. “Hang up,” she said. “I think he’s coming out of it.”
My friend, who had probably been thinking about how he would explain this to the police if I died, eagerly hung up the phone mid-dial.
Of course, nothing had changed in the eight years I’d been gone, because the total elapsed time of my seizure may have been as short as 45 seconds. Best guess.
Everyone was mad at me for playing around with drugs on Christmas, but I was too weepy at the wonder of my family to care. My Alaska life in a borrowed pair of sweatpants (due to a superrealistic accident in my slacks during the seizure) was still better than anything Tyler, Texas, had to offer.
In the years since, I still have more questions than answers. Lingering doubts about reality and time. And some confusing emotions about friends in Tyler, whose imaginary nature I am still reluctant to hold against them.