In the summer of 1998, my brother John and I thumbed a ride to Prague where we fell in with a large international group of travelers who were pulling a long stay at a cheap hostel there. After a few days, John decided to continue on to Poland, and I decided to hang out a little bit longer before heading back to Paris where I was meeting up with some other friends. But what neither of us remembered was that my passport was in John’s bag. And when he left, I wound up getting stuck in Prague for several more weeks trying to resolve my status. John had put my passport in the mail, addressed to the hostel, but as the days went by, it gradually became obvious that it would never arrive. Luckily, the place we were staying served up 25-cent beers, and every fifth one was free if you brought back your empty bottles. They also charged by the bed, rather than the person, so if someone was willing to share a mattress with you, you could stay a night for free. Needless to say, many of us became very close, and it turned out to not be such a bad place to get stuck for the summer.
Among the people I met were friends I would know for years, people I would travel the world with, and a girl I would go on to almost marry. Each of those people deserves their own story, and that time in Prague might even get its own whole book someday, but for now, the relationship I want to talk about is the one I formed with Pike. His name wasn’t really Pike, but it was one of those summers when a bunch of people bonded and gave each other nicknames. He had mentioned that he was from New Jersey and someone asked, “Which exit?,” citing the theory that everyone in New Jersey lived on the turnpike. We jokingly referred to him as “turnpike” and then a few minutes later it came up that he was a fan of the band Phish. Someone else joked that a pike was a type of fish and from that point on I thought of him (and still think of him) as “Pike.” We hit it off quickly, and he seemed to gravitate toward the other people I was hanging around with, so a handful of us fell into a little tribe.
The people who inhabited the hostel were always taking turns organizing various types of small group excursions: off to a bar on the other side of the city, off to perform for spare change on the Charles Bridge, a ride on the funicular up the hill to Petrin Tower, a visit to the cathedral where Mozart got married or to the opera house where Don Giovanni had first been performed. Those of us who’d been there a few weeks had checked those things off already and were now mostly just sitting around at the hostel socializing and drinking beer. One night we found ourselves gathered in a small group. It was me, Pike, the girl I’d been seeing, a girl Pike was hanging out with and a mutual friend I’ll call Kevin. Kevin had met a guy in a local bar who had offered to sell him some acid and he proposed that we all embark on our own special kind of travel excursion. We all agreed, and we put in an order for a generous number of hits. Then, when some of the other travelers began to turn in, and the crowd in front of the hostel thinned down, the five of us snuck around the corner to the paved lot along the back side of the building, where patrons and employees of the hostel would gather to play soccer in the afternoon. At night, there was nobody out there. So we sat on the ground, dropped our doses and hung out talking while we waited for the stuff to hit.
I don’t remember it coming on gently. In fact, the next thing I recall is that pretty early on in the trip Pike and I were already getting confrontational with the boundaries of physical reality. One of us assaulted a trash can. And then at least one of us started crawling around the crumbly edge of the paved surface trying to eat the asphalt and concrete. You know, because in theory we’re made up of the same stuff as everything else in the universe, so we should be able to merge with any other substance we want as long as we approach it right. Later, we would both remember ourselves being the one who tried to eat the pavement, so maybe we were merging with each other to some extent at that moment. Shortly after we gave up on ingesting the parking lot, Pike started to go a little agro, making references to violence and mayhem. I could tell that it freaked out some of the other trippers who started wandering off to do their own thing, but somehow I followed it. I felt where he was at. The pavement eating thing had sort of started out light-hearted, but it had also posed limits to our deep desire to rebel. Why were there things in the universe that we couldn’t eat? Why were there laws of physics that extended beyond us so that we couldn’t fully harmonize with everything in our vicinity? Why couldn’t we pass through walls, or drink starlight, or fly, or make love to water?
I think some of Pike’s anger was coming from this place, this primal rebellion against the boundaries of our animalhood. And I really related to him. There was this beautiful cosmic oneness of everything that we could patch into and appreciate, but we were restricted in the ways in which we could interact with it physically. And those small practical limitations of matter had also snowballed into all kinds of other unnecessarily complicated bullshit realities, like having to compete for resources and social acceptance, and work and money and the whole big system of gross gobbledygook that dragged us back down to earth from this blissful perspective that we were aware of but could only visit. Pike started losing his linear narrative a little bit: grunting, moaning, garbling sounds, strobing between darkness and tenderness, anger and tears, the joy of a newborn baby commingling on his face with the violence of a trapped wolf. I felt like I could see the cynical nihilism of his New Jersey adolescence flashing across his eyes in a rapid-fire series of winces and grimaces. And I totally got it. I was an East Coast kid too, and I knew the terror of feeling like your most precious moments of awakening would somehow always be trapped in a beer bottle or a nitrous balloon next to a pickup truck in some parking lot, but at the same time fearing that the artificial tough guy posture you’d affected for surviving that environment was actually your truest nature. The struggle of trying to determine whether your most sincere self was a brutal, blood-hungry forest mammal, or a cosmic spirit that transcended physical being altogether. And ultimately just being so heartbroken by feeling disassociated from the truth of your nature that all you can think to do is drink Rolling Rocks with your buddies and howl into the night in confused primordial agony. At least, that’s what it seemed like he was going through.
At one point, Pike sort of disconnected in a new way. His gaze fixed in the distance and his animalistic groans subsided to a bit of mumbling. His eyes shifted back and forth distractedly like he was calculating something, like he was working through the physics in his head. He gradually sat down, and then lay down on his back, and then eerily ceased moving altogether. I sat down beside him and asked if he was okay. He looked straight up at the sky and said, in a perfectly calm voice, “I think I’m going to stop.” I asked what he meant, but I knew before he started trying to explain it. He was going to stop functioning. He was deciding to stop inhaling oxygen and stop injecting it into his blood. Stop pumping blood. Stop moving his cells around. Stop actively inhabiting his system. I felt like I understood exactly what he was proposing. And I thought, if he did it, that he might just disappear before my eyes, that without actively magnetizing the busy bustle of all his atoms and molecules he could simply disperse and vanish from my plane of existence. But at the same time, I also wondered if maybe he would just physically die and leave me in a parking lot in Prague with a corpse, waiting for the pigs to show up.
Kevin was there again, and he was starting to freak out, suggesting that we should call a doctor or something. I had to sternly warn Kevin against this. I knew that Pike could be retrieved from where he was at conceptually, but I couldn’t vouch for what would happen to any of us if we got tangled up in the darkness of cops and ambulances dragging us off in different directions, all speaking Czech to us in the middle of the night, some of us not even having passports. So I spoke as forcefully as I could and managed to convince Kevin to let me handle it. Then I asked Pike, as sweetly as I could, to please stay with us instead of leaving. I could tell that it was a struggle for him to even respond, like the majority of his will power had already left us all behind. But he contorted himself and managed to wail one guttural syllable through his teeth, the word: “Why?” I didn’t have an answer and I didn’t know what to say, but without thinking about it at all I responded, “Love.” This seemed to get his attention, but not quite convince him. “Love?” he asked, half inspired, half skeptical. His tough Jersey guy anger face and his tender innocent child of the universe face started swapping back and forth again as he tried to compute the word, alternating confusedly and blending with each other like an angel and a demon at war for his soul.
I couldn’t explain or defend the word “love.” I didn’t even know why it had come out of my mouth. But I knew, for whatever reason, that I loved Pike. I told him that I loved him and that I didn’t want him to stop. And that I didn’t know what that love would become if we were no longer vibrating as these physical beings that were visible to each other. I tried to explain that I was afraid if we stopped living as animals that all our emotions would go away too. That if we dispersed back into the energy of the universe, that the beauty we perceived in that would also disperse. That we were the only things keeping love alive. I wanted to try to tell him what love was or what it meant, but I couldn’t. There were no words for it. Either love was something tangible that we could feel in our bodily incarnations, or it wasn’t. And if it wasn’t, then I didn’t know what else to tell him to keep him interested in the physical realm. So I just put my hand on his chest and looked into his eyes and repeated the word like a mantra. I didn’t know what it even meant to me as I said it, but it felt like it meant something. Maybe it even just meant something scientifically basic, like the desire that certain molecules have to bond together into larger compounds as a way of defending themselves against disintegrating and spreading out again into the darkness of space. Do molecules feel any need to know and explain why they do that?
Whatever it meant, or didn’t mean, it worked. I don’t know how long I sat with him like that, but Pike eventually came around. He decided that he didn’t want to “stop” anymore. I don’t know to what extent it’s considered scientifically possible to just “stop,” but I was thoroughly convinced that night that the choice was all his. We shared some teary post-traumatic smiles and hugs, like the ones shared by firemen who have just rescued a kid and his kitten from a burning building in a movie. The other people we’d been tripping with reappeared from their own adventures. One had been wandering in a small patch of woods, one had been meditating off in a corner. They all expressed their happiness at having Pike back among us. Everyone had peaked and we all safely made our way back to the little seating area near the front door of the hostel, the place where everyone regularly gathered each evening to sit in plastic chairs and drink beer, discussing the day’s adventures in tourism. And there, we began our gradual deceleration back to daily life thinking. Pike, by this time, was completely naked, but it didn’t seem the least bit out of place to anyone. He even walked in and went up to the counter to get some water and the person at the desk just smiled at him peacefully.
When he came back, he sat down next to the girl he was with. He was naked in the doorway to the hostel, which wasn’t even a hostel anymore, it was a gigantic shrine to interstellar awakening, whose front door only existed as a graphic element within which to frame Pike as the icon. And the girl was his angel, beaming perfect celestial love that bathed him like a warm light. The glow from inside the hostel backlit them like a holy painting. Pike was reclined in the form of a Greek statue, and without the slightest hint of self-consciousness, he began to urinate. Neither of them moved. I think I heard someone laugh, like a distant echo, but I was transfixed by the picture. His position caused the stream to arc upwards and away from him, in a graphic line that completed the composition of the tableau. He stared straight ahead, serenity in his face, a classical fountain, a god of antiquity. He had purified himself beyond the concerns of the mortal world. His angel didn’t seem to mind. She just continued to beam. The scene held for quite some time, and it is my final and enduring image of that night. The human fountain of cosmic truth.
Come to think of it, I’m not even sure that Pike’s girlfriend had taken anything with us that night. I think that she was just totally, intuitively at ease with what Pike was going through. They’d just started spending time together earlier that day, and later they would go on to marry. Now they have two beautiful, cherubic children and a home in the New Jersey countryside with a vegetable garden. I went on to have long friendships with several of the people I met that summer in Prague, but none so close or so dear as the one I still have with Pike and his wife. I still admire the beauty that I saw in them as newly anointed young gods of the cosmos. I still look into Pike’s eyes when I see him and think about love in a way that’s beyond all definition. And I still see the way I feel about him as a good enough reason for neither of us to stop inhabiting organic systems.