Like A Vessel Hurtling Through Interstellar Space

A Passage from Luminous Airplanes, or Things As They Were: A Hyperromance

Almost every week Alice and I did Ecstasy together—Alice bought it from her friend Fiona, who sold drugs out of her cubicle at the browser company in Mountain View. We went to clubs South of Market and let the lasers stripe our nearly insensate bodies; we dissolved into artifical fog. We drank gallons of water and sweated in each other’s arms. We didn’t talk much, but we stared into each other’s eyes like starved animals. We hurtled all night through the starry void and went home at daybreak, our jaws sore, our mouths parched, bonded by the memory of our total need for each other, which was stronger than love, stronger than anything but the extremes of sickness and terror.

We were dancing in one of those clubs—I want to say it was the Sound Factory, but I’m not sure—when we heard Pearl Fabula for the first time. He came on with no fanfare; we wouldn’t have noticed that a new DJ was in the booth except that suddenly the dance track crumbled into the sound of galloping hooves, and a train whistle, and we found ourselves on a vast plain bordered by mountains, our legs tickled by the tall grass.

“Hey,” somebody said.

But already the landscape was shifting: the mountains were taller, more stark. We were on the moon, our feet grinding dry talus, the sky overhead an airless black.

“Whoa,” I heard from the crowd.

Who was doing this to us? A skinny kid with big black-framed glasses—they’re fashionable now, everyone has them, but in those days they still belonged to the trailing edge of an old wave of nerd-dom and a black t-shirt. He stood at the controls, one hand scratching his stubbly head, his mouth downturned in an expression of extreme anxiety. That was my first impression of Pearl Fabula and it is the one that persists when I think of him: he was a worried person. Maybe the Ecstasy made me more emotionally intuitive than I usually am; that’s the story that people who take a lot of drugs have liked to tell ever since Aldous Huxley, about cleaning the doors of perception and letting the real world in, anyway, maybe it was my chemically enhanced sensitivity to other people that allowed me to see, so I thought, into Pearl’s mind, or maybe what I saw would have been obvious to even the straightest most un-fucked-up observer, or maybe it was completely wrong; anyway, what I saw, watching Pearl, in the booth, was the enormous difference, not of degree but of kind, between playing music and dancing to it, between creating pleasure and experiencing pleasure. There is, to be sure, a certain amount of courage involved in dancing; and it takes courage, less obviously, but just as surely, to abandon yourself to the enjoyment of something, to enter into it totally, to let yourself become a person who is enjoying himself, which means, practically speaking, letting go of the habits of worry and caution which do the very real work of containing us, of shoring up our sagging selves. Ecstasy was shorthand for that courage, or rather, it gave us, me, that courage immediately and totally. All I had to do was buy the pill and swallow it. But even the courage I would have needed in order to lose myself on the crowded dance floor of (let’s say) the Sound Factory, opposite Alice, pressed on all sides by people more graceful and thinner and better-looking than I was, without the help of any drug at all, was nothing compared to the courage it takes to make it possible for someone else to have that same experience. To make someone else happy isn’t just like building the house in which they live (although it is like that, at some level); it’s like standing in place of a structural beam and holding the roof up with your arms. The responsibility is crushing and so is the demand on your attention, and so, beyond both of those, is the what if fear of everything that could go wrong, everything which would, because you have put yourself in this position, be your fault. I saw that the external correlate of my pleasure was Pearl’s total dread. And this is to say nothing of his actual skill (about which I think I wrote something earlier)—all the time he must have spent learning how to work this equipment and thinking through everything that had already been done by DJs and also by looking outside the DJ tradition, if I can call it that, to other musical realms: sound design in film, notably, in order to make for us the landscapes through which we suddenly moved, delighted, appreciating only the novelty of Pearl’s sonic approach. (And everything, if you don’t mind my going on about this, works the same way. Moderate pleasure is built on the back of nearly infinite dread.)

“Wow,” said Alice.

“Yeah,” I said.

I had understood, or thought I had understood, something important—and what, I’d like to know, is the difference, in this context, between understanding and thinking that you understand? Can you reach a valid conclusion on the basis of hallucinatory evidence?—but it didn’t change me in any noticeable way. My insight about Pearl was like a storm pouring into the porous ground: the changes it brought about were all subterranean, and I would not become aware of them until much later. Alice and I danced through Pearl’s set, and another DJ came on, nowhere near as good as Pearl. The new DJ was merely inhabiting the house that other people had built, in Detroit, fifteen, twenty years earlier (I got a rundown of the history of techno and its offspring, house music, trance, etc., from Alex). He spun the same records as other people, matched the same beats, worked the same transitions; the maximum fear he could have felt was proportionate to his effort to have a “signature” style, a few tricks of his own, which in fact he’d probably borrowed from someone else, and it, the fear, couldn’t have been too great, because he played the whole set with a smirk, as though the mere fact that the DJ booth was six feet off the ground made him superior to the people dancing below. Then we went to Magic Donut (or, as I called it, Manic Donut) for a late-night snack.

“That kid…”

“I know!”

“What was his name?”

“I didn’t catch it.”

“We have to find him again.”

We found Pearl again and again, ten, twenty, maybe forty times. We followed him to Los Angeles. He became the other pillar that held us up—the first pillar being drugs. Together they made the memories that kept us together, the vital experience that we had shared. Alice and I were like people who had lived through a disaster together: it didn’t matter, really, whether we were compatible, and it certainly didn’t matter whether or not we were in love. What we had in common was an impermanent world of total intensity, in which the ordinary rules were abolished and we were mere creatures in need of mutual aid and still capable, somehow—maybe that capability was the most amazing thing we experienced—of supplying it. And so in a strange way pleasure and dread meet up again: our pleasure was so intense, it was catastrophic, like an earthquake that could happen any time we wanted.

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