The Valley – Michael McSweeney
September 6, 2022
The blizzard entered Boston while we slept. We were staying in an alright-quality chain hotel by the Charles River and planned to see a good band with some friends. But the storm kept everyone else out of the city.
I left our room in the morning and walked to the end of the hallway. A window overlooked the river and the big white patches on the ice. A faint stoplight on the other side of the bridge near the hotel winked at me. A few hours from now, we should have been driving across, then left through the riverside rush near Fenway, the blitz-quick-dash that always excited me, me once the boy born an hour northeast of here. The cold was familiar, dangerous air, my air. But now the city was impassable and there was nowhere to go.
We ate from the hotel’s so-so breakfast bar and went for a walk outside, but the blizzard’s tongues stung like horseflies and we gave up not far from the front door. Back in our room, we took a scalding shower together and then surrendered to the family-friendly drone of the TV. The sky, a gray rectangle between our two-thirds shut curtains, darkened as the short day closed.
I turned to my partner and asked, Why don’t we take some acid?
We were gonna dip into it tonight anyway.
Have you ever tripped in a hotel before?
Not one like this.
I rolled onto my side. The bedspread creased as my body shifted. My partner lay on her stomach, eyes closed.
Let’s do it. Otherwise, we’re just gonna fall asleep early.
Sounds nice, actually.
C’mon, just a hit each. We don’t need to go full lizard mode here.
My partner opened her eyes, rolled over, and sat up. She was nude and goddamn beautiful.
She asked, Just one hit? Have I tried this acid before?
It’s the good shit, from Steve. Really mellow stuff. You’ll mostly feel this, like, glow inside you.
My partner grabbed the TV remote and scratched her thigh with it. It’s very tempting, she said. Then she said, Alright, fuck it.
While my partner dressed I grabbed my copy of Arthur Edward Waite’s The Book of Black Magic from my backpack. On page thirty-seven, I found the square of tin foil with several tabs of acid inside. Steve told me each of the tabs was technically a double, so using a small razor blade I sliced one of the tabs in half, placed the book on the dresser, and dropped the two half-tabs onto the cover. My partner exited the bathroom, brushing her hair.
We should have brought extra blankets for this, she said. Also, you’re gonna call room service later.
Done deal, I said.
As was our custom, we touched our tabs together and then placed them on the other’s tongue. This was the fifth time we’d tripped together. Seasoned transcendentals. Our last trip together was three years earlier, at a festival in Greenfield, where we pulsed like nervous messages from campsite to crowded field to star-crazed heaven, bound to the earth only by the riggings of our fingers.
We stashed our phones in our bags and waited. At the window, I opened the curtains completely. The dark humps of buried cars lurked in the parking lot as snow frenzied around the LED-capped poles. My body grew warmer, as if someone was singing in my interior, their voice a plume on the rise.
How are you feeling? I asked.
Really good, my partner said.
I wanna go swimming.
I walked back to the bed. My partner lay spread-eagle on the comforter.
Yeah. I wanna be in some water right now. Like. Completely swallowed by it.
I looked around at the debris field of our possessions, the chaos of our shared disinterest in organization.
We didn’t prepare enough, I said. I didn’t even roll any joints.
I sat on the bed and her foot curled against my side, warm, feline.
Then she asked, Why don’t you stay here and hold down the fort while I go investigate? Roll some joints.
Yeah. I like that idea.
A thorough investigation. While you roll some joints.
My partner stood, unzipped her travel bag, and rifled through her clothes.
Fuck, I didn’t bring a bathing suit. Oh, oh. This. This is it, right here.
She bubbled to the bathroom and the door clicked shut. When she emerged, she wore gym shorts and a tank top.
Come find me if I don’t come back, she said as she stuffed her sockless feet into a pair of still-tied sneakers.
I was on my feet again, my finger before my face, pointing at our possessions in search of a particular bag. I nodded severely. When she was gone I took a pack of papers and a bag of weed from my backpack and rolled a few joints. It took a long time and I needed to use a bent-up paper clip to shove some of the buds into the wraps.
Acid affects everyone differently. And even though I wouldn’t have considered Steve’s latest batch to be overly strong our room’s atmosphere had morphed into warm glue and instead of fetching my shoes I threw myself into the viscous bedsheets and drowned in dry-cleaned aromas, the imaginary stretch, and tug of hands to make me comfortable, me, me.
I freed myself, finished dressing, and went to find my partner. The pool was on the first floor. I stole through the hallways, eager to stay unseen, too aware that, if discovered, I would simply explode with light.
At the pool room door, I pressed my face to the thick glass window. My partner stood in the waist-high shallow end, clothes floating beside her, right hand massaging a breast as she chewed the fingers of her left. More arms sprouted from her sides, caressed her cheek, tugged her auburn hair, plunged below the splash, the pool a shimmer of her gasps, her shudders, all the moans resounding through the door.
There is a place in every acid trip that each person must travel alone. A valley, a rebirth. Some people simply don’t make it. What was happening to my partner wasn’t sexual. She was in the eye, the place in the storm where gods and giants pause their work.
I took the stairs back to our room. My footsteps leapt like children in a hurry. I was slow, methodically upward, someone who could have climbed forever.
The phone was ringing as I reentered our room.
Yes, I am him.
Hi. This is Jeff, at the front desk. Could you please come downstairs? You’re, uh, well, there’s a situation involving your wife.
I told Jeff, Of course, Jeff, I’ll be right down Jeff, whatever you think is best Jeff, thank you for informing me, Jeff.
I found my partner towel-wrapped on a small couch in the lobby. On the TV in the corner, a reporter stood on a beach in Provincetown, bleached by snow-assaulted camera light. My partner looked up and smiled. A man in a suit and tie stood beside her.
What’s all the trouble? I asked, stooping my voice to mimic my father.
Jeff began, Well, she–
Say no more. I understand completely. Won’t happen again.
We have very clear policies about the use of the pool.
Heard you loud. Heard you very, very loud. Pool’s a pool.
I put a hand on Jeff’s shoulder and said, Look, let me settle with you. Then I paused and thought about how I was going to settle. I thought of an old trick my friend and I used once to get out of a speeding ticket.
See, she isn’t my wife. She’s my best friend. And see, the whole reason we’re in town is that the love of her goddamn life was supposed to get married tomorrow. And she wanted to stop it. And me, being her best friend, I came with her. You know, for mental support. But now the storm has wrecked everything and she doesn’t get the chance to try and win them over. Win over the love of her life, I mean.
Wow, said Jeff.
So she’s a bit upset tonight, and uh, if she was violating the pool rules, I can assure you it was an accident and we’ll, you know, yeah. I held out my hands as if between them they held the entirety of our lives, up to his sole judgment.
Okay, just…just don’t go in the pool for the remainder of your stay, he said.
Done deal, I said. I brushed by him, helped my partner to her feet, and led her to the elevators. Once we passed the doors she threw herself against me.
I saw you, I said.
Her fingers whorled on my back as if I were made of sand.
Are we gonna make it? she asked. Me and you?
I don’t know, I said.
The hallway to our room felt alien, so we lingered and inspected a bowl of plastic fruit on a table by the elevator doors. Our fingers inched across the false apples and oranges like astonished worms. An older couple declined our offers of food as they approached. Once the elevator doors closed behind them we pocketed the fruit and skulked back to our room.
My partner took another shower and I sat on the small couch next to the bed. I wondered if I’d made it through the valley. If so, it would be easy from here, all downhill, the time slippage didn’t matter, the mercenary leaps the heart might take didn’t matter, whatever hungers or sorrows or soul-fears dogged us didn’t matter. The trip would simply throb and glow until its death.
I knocked on the bathroom door and then opened it.
Hey, my partner said.
I stared at myself in the mirror, and then asked, Wanna go for a walk? Smoke a joint or two?
Yes, she said. Yes, I do.
Once she was finished, we donned every article of clothing we possessed, gathered up the joints, some bottles of water, our wallets, and left the hotel through the front door. The wind nearly toppled us. The roads were empty and we battled across to the bridge and through the empty brownstone streets. Passing the joints between us proved impossible, so we each smoked our own, and through the chop, I followed the crunch of her boots and the delicious tendrils that drifted away from her.
How long it took us, I still don’t know, but we reached the venue where the good band was supposed to play. Snow clung to the door’s cavities, the rim of its circular window. Orange light fuzzed and pulsed in the glass as if a furnace raged behind it, angry about our arrival, vengeful even. The door trembled as if it, too, was scared of the music inside. I wanted to flee back into the wastes.
Let’s do this, my partner said.
Are you sure? We might not make it out alive, I whispered, and I really meant it.
My partner cupped my cheek with her white-crusted glove. The chill washed through me in pounding waves.
I love you, she said.
Inside the venue, we peeled our layers away and dampened the carpet as we melted. Some people, not many, hung around the bar as the good band fidgeted with their instruments. We inched to the front, exhausted but hushed as if we’d discovered a remote temple in the throes of worship.
The lead singer grinned at us and bent into their microphone.
Hey, look at these great people braving the shit to see our show tonight. Let’s give ’em a hand.
Applause glittered around us. My partner twisted and bowed.
Since you came out all this way, why don’t you pick our next song? the lead singer asked.
The singer squatted and leaned forward as my partner approached the stage and whispered in the singer’s ear. After a few moments, he looked past her and smiled at me.
Then he stood and said, Well folks, it looks like we’re gonna get a little weird and welcome our new friends on the stage. Because fuck it, nobody’s here.
Can we do this? I mouthed as my partner returned and slipped her hand into mine.
White light washed over us as we clambered onto the stage, every shred of me blasted away beneath the blaze. The band struck up a rowdy song I kind of recognized and my partner seized the mic. The other band members gawked.
Then my partner burst into a soaring roar, consonants discarded, a holy uprise, a boundless escalation uncoupled from the song the moment she started. The band bounced onward. I clasped my hand over hers on the mic, our cheeks collided and I joined. My voice, no great talent, strained beneath its limits.
But I kept following. Her tongue lashed my lips and she shook with joy. I stamped my feet and started to cry. We flew together, we were the wind together, we sang through the valley together.