The old man woke up with a start. He looked around the kitchen. “Where is Annie, your mother?”
“She took the bike and went grocery shopping,” said the youngest boy, grabbing the old man’s arm and cuddling up to him. “Oh grandfather, tell us, did you ever smoke pot? Did you? Tell us, please!”
The man looked the two boys in the face. “You two imps!” he tried to say sternly. “What are you up to now? Why the question, eh?”
The oldest boy just shrugged his shoulders. “We thought about it on our way from school.”
“I can well imagine, you two rascals!” But Grandfather did consider the question, and added after some thought: “When will your mother be back?”
“Not for ages, grandfather. You know how she loves to chat with her friends at the village store.”
“In that case, let me tell you a story… something that happened many years ago. Mind, this isn’t an easy answer to your question; a simple yes or no won’t do!“
Many, many years ago, your grandfather worked in a laboratory in Switzerland. I was there to do my PhD, at the faculty of cellbiology. And in that lab worked a man, a postdoctoral fellow named…uh… John. For the sake of this story, I will change the names, as we do not want to embarrass anyone, even after all these years. John was an American, slightly overweight, with black curly hair. He had completed his PhD in Oslo, and had a Norwegian girlfriend by the name of Rita… Rita Olson. I recall that he had actually gone to Oslo after meeting and falling in love with Rita at some science conference. During John’s stay in Switzerland, the two of them had a long-distance relationship, but I don’t recall Rita ever came to visit from Oslo.
In that lab worked another postdoc, Gabriel, a man from Vienna. Gabriel had blond hair and a goatee and had given me tremendous help to complete my PhD, but he was a bit crazy… many years later I found out that he had a wife or girlfriend in Vienna, and even a young child that he had never mentioned; although we always talked for hours late at night in the lab, about so many topics, and we even got drunk together. Gabriel was extremely negative about Jewish people, a terrible antisemite, he hated Jews for no apparent reason… which made life very complicated, as John was an American Jew… and naturally, Gabriel disliked John from the start. The weird thing was that all three of us were liberals, we had very similar political opinions. So here I was, a rookie Ph.D. student, stuck between these two squabbling men, trying to protect John and trying to re-educate Gabriel. I’m getting sidetracked, but I warned you this wasn’t a simple story.
Anyway, John’s contract ran out and he and Rita went to San Francisco for new postdoc positions. Not much later I finished my Ph.D. and left to work at a German institute to start my first postdoctoral position. Gabriel returned to Vienna too, and this weird and highly intense period as well as our strained tripartite relationship came to an end. I never saw Gabriel since, I think he ended up in Italy. But I did meet John again.
A couple of years later, another postdoc, Karel, and I got a ticket for a conference in Keystone, Colorado. This man came from a newly created country, the Czech Republic, which had just come about after Czechoslovakia disintegrated. This was the time of the fall of the Iron Curtain. Karel and I decided to fly to San Francisco and then rent a car to drive to Keystone, and thus I used the opportunity to fly in a week early and visit John and Rita. John was enthusiastic that I came to visit, and had organized some sightseeing. It was great to see my friend again, although it was soon clear that not all was well between him and Rita: she worked strange hours in the lab, and I hardly ever saw her. They constantly squabbled when she was in the apartment. On top of that, for my entire stay, San Francisco was enveloped in a huge cloud, and it rained all of the time, which pissed off John as all his great plans for sightseeing were torpedoed, and we had to spend a lot of time indoors; which he disliked because of his neighbors.
His neighbors! Getting an apartment in Frisco always was a hassle, but John had managed to find a nice place in Castro, a neighborhood that is and always was highly en vogue with homosexuals; both lesbians and gay men. As we walked the steep streets and went for coffee or dinner, we saw only same-sex couples. Neither John nor I minded, but his neighbors he did mind. First, the gay men in the next-door apartment tried to convince him to become gay too, at least that’s what John told me. They tried to chat him up in the laundry room, which John countered with outrageous stories about heterosexual sex – and as he was quite obsessed with sex, he had quite a few. And then he complained that the men on the right and the women on the left constantly moaned during sex… and that he could hear it through the walls. I held this for an exaggeration until one Friday night the two neighboring couples got going like sewing machines. Embarrassed, John put on a CD and turned up the sound to drown out the noise of same-sex, start-of-the-weekend copulation. John was a great fan of The Rolling Stones, so we listened to them for what felt like ages – I never particularly liked their music.
Sorry, my boys, for getting sidetracked. It’s just that the memories start coming back. Don’t mention a word of this to your mother, you hear!
Anyway, that night John took out his bong, the water pipe. He had already proudly announced that he had bought some hashish, so realizing that we still had zero visibility due to the fog and rain, he suggested we stay in and watch a movie. He had picked a videotape with a Matt Dillon movie that had just come out: a kiss before dying, a Hitchcock-like thriller but with more blood, about a psychopathic killer. Max von Sydow and Diana Ladd were in it too. This is not the type of movie that you should watch if you are stoned; and man, did we get stoned. Rita was at the lab, “working late” and with nothing else to do we smoked the entire chunk that John had bought.
As a youth, I had lived in Amsterdam and had smoked some Afghan, Lebanese, and Nederwiet, but the stuff that John had bought was from a different dimension; this was pure middle American shit of prime quality. Within half an hour the two of us were shitfaced and wasted. My eyes kept on rolling in my head and I could crawl through my left trouser pocket, count the coins and do Spanish translations. John’s socks had blown off, but he still had his shoes on.
We soon lost track of the movie’s plot, wildly speculating about the story, which did not make sense at all. Halfway through I had to use the toilet and excused myself. I had a hard time scaling the speedbump in the hallway. I stood over the bowl to pee, it took ages to empty my bladder. Later I looked at my face in the bathroom mirror for a long time and slowly ordered my clothing. Time crawled by and I panicked; by now John would be wondering why I was hiding out in the toilet for so long. I stumbled back to the living room. “What’s happening? Did I miss a lot?”
“Na. You still saw him getting get into the cab, then he drove across town and just now he arrived at the hotel.” That’s what happens when you smoke good pot; it starts to play tricks on your sense of time.
“What’s that banging noise?” I said. “Do you hear it?”
“It’s the CD player, must be the Rolling Stones. I must have forgotten to turn it off.” John crawled to the HiFi and turned the switch. But the banging continued. “Damn it!” he cursed. He grabbed the electric cord with both hands and pulled it. The plug came out of the wall and so did the socket, revealing exposed electrical cables and some sparks. John crawled to the hole and looked through it. “Fuck this!” he shouted. “It’s those damn lesbians; one of them is banging the other with a strap-on, against my wall!” With considerable effort, he managed to raise himself and started pounding against the wall with his two fists. “Shut up, you hear, stop it!” He shouted at the top of his lungs. I didn’t want to miss another part of the movie, so after crawling to the video player, I tried to locate the pause button. Muffled shouts could be heard coming from the apartment of the two gay men. I realized John’s shouting must have interrupted their activities. I hit my head against the CD rack and collapsed on the floor, laughing.
Sometime later, the neighbors on both sides quieted down. John started the video again. But suddenly the movie was over, and the ending left us flabbergasted: the story didn’t make any sense. We spent ages criticizing the plot and trying to understand it, too. Every time I thought that I understood the story, it evaded me again. In reality, the story is pretty straightforward; I picked up the novel many years later; a well-written book.
Rita arrived, looking glum. She disappeared into the bedroom.
Finally, we went to bed, both of us completely confused. My heart was pounding like an old engine, but I fell asleep quickly.
The next morning at breakfast, Rita joined us, sulky again. She didn’t fulfill the archetypal cliche of a Scandinavian woman: she had dark hair, was short, and had a gigantic rear end. In contrast to booze, hashish doesn’t result in a hangover, although if you use it often, it has detrimental effects; it will change your speech, slows it down, makes you use standard phrases over and over again. It turns you into a turnip; that’s my opinion.
Anyway, a couple of days later, Karel came to pick me up, and we set off for Keystone. I can tell you that story later too.
“What happened to John, grandfather?”
Many years later, I met John again, who by that time had moved to Washington DC. He and Rita had split up, she had started an affair with her boss in the lab that she worked at. John had lost weight, and was working out to stay fit. We visited some of the museums on the Mall that day, we saw the Apollo module and the Wright brother’s plane. Apparently, John was dating women all over the place, he talked about sex constantly. By the end of the day, I was exhausted by his constant stream of innuendo. In fact, that was the last time I ever saw him… although we did exchange a couple of emails many years later.
History closed the book on that one, I guess.
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