Story from Leslie Lisbona (one of three essays)

Gummy Bears 

Val and I were in Amsterdam.  Queen Elizabeth had just died, and no one was wearing Covid masks anymore. It was cold for September; I wished I had brought warmer clothing.  I wore my hoodie and a thin leather jacket, which wasn’t enough.  

Walking in the Red Light District, Val put his arm around me. “Do you want to get high?” he whispered.  Val has a nice voice – deep and seductive – but he asked as if he were certain I would refuse.  We were on vacation, just the two of us, without our sons. When I said, “Okay,” he raised his perfectly arched eyebrows and smiled.  
He bought a brownie edible and some gummies from a “coffee house.”  With the goods in the chest pocket of his flannel, we rode our rented bikes back to the hotel and locked them in the front courtyard.  If we were going to do this, we shouldn’t be on two wheels. On the way to dinner, we each ate a gummy, so innocent seeming, a candy in the shape of a bear.

Walking in Amsterdam was treacherous.  Bicycle lanes appeared seemingly out of nowhere, crisscrossed streets, and reappeared where we least expected them.  It made us apprehensive and jittery, swinging our heads around and stopping short, catching our breath.  We decided to walk in a quieter neighborhood, along the canals and residential streets, as we searched for a restaurant.
A few minutes later, Val said, “Do you feel anything?”
“Me neither.”  
We each ate another bear while the canals twinkled in the night and the houseboats bobbed in the water.

Debi, my older sister, used to get high.  In the 1970s, when I was 6 and she was 16, we shared a room, a small space where I witnessed her teenage life.  When she was stoned, I hated her.  She laughed too much and was distant. I didn’t like the pungent odor of the smoke, different from cigarette smoke.  I needed her to be her usual caring self, someone who was responsible for me after school.  Instead, she and her friends spread out on our twin waterbeds, which were not more than two feet apart.  When I came home and smelled the pot, I folded my arms in front of my chest and asked her if she was high.  This made her laugh even more.  “I’m going to tell Mom,” I would threaten and march off to the living room to watch TV. She made being a teen seem like a disease I wanted to avoid.  When I was in high school, I experimented a little, but I never inhaled enough to feel any effects.  It had no appeal to me. When a joint was being passed around, more often than not, I just handed it along.  
Val and I peeked into restaurant windows, looked at the menus posted on the street, and didn’t find anything.  Some were too crowded; some didn’t have enough ambiance.  Some needed reservations.  We walked some more.  

“How about now?” he asked.
“Nothing.  You?”
“Not a thing.”
He broke off a piece of the brownie and gave it to me.  
“Yum,” I said.  It tasted sweet and cloying. “I love chocolate.” 

He took a bite, too, and put the rest back in his breast pocket.  
Val and I finally found a restaurant that was neither nice, cool looking, nor appetizing.  We were running out of options, and closing time was near.  We took seats and wiped down our table with a napkin.  
While we were eating, Val said something, I don’t remember what.  For some reason it made me laugh.  “What’s so funny?” he asked. “Nothing,” I said, and then we laughed so much that no sounds came out of our mouths, except for occasional gasps for air and a kind of whine from trying to suppress the laugh.  We were attracting attention. After we finished our food, Val paid the bill, and then I grabbed his arm across the table and said, “I don’t think I can walk.”  Either he didn’t hear me or he ignored me because he got up and left the restaurant.  I hauled myself up, willing my legs to function, knocked into the edge of the table, which didn’t even hurt, and followed him to the street.  

I hooked my arm into his and followed his lead.  I knew I was walking but was not sure how.  As if emerging from a blackout, I was standing someplace new.  Then there were shouts and screams.  I hugged Val and realized that I couldn’t really see.   A bicycle swerved around us and then another.  We were standing in the middle of a busy bike lane. I tried to open my pink umbrella.  I was confused.  Was it raining?  Why did I have an umbrella in my hand? Val brought my arm down. 
Time must have passed because again we were standing someplace new.  I felt afraid. I didn’t remember how we got there.  My mind was flashing on and off, like a slide projector with a missing slide.

Val was talking to someone on his phone.  It was our son in New Rochelle.  Aaron and Oliver were locked out of the house.  The key had jammed inside the lock of the front door and broken off.  Val was talking with them on the phone, trying to figure out what to do.  I said I could open the garage remotely from my phone, and I did.  

Five minutes later, the boys called again.  I asked why they were calling.  “Are they okay?”
“Yes,” he said. “They got in the house.”
“They were locked out?”
“Les, we just talked about this.”  He looked at me, incredulous.
“Are they okay?”  I felt panic mounting, almost a sense of hysteria.  “What happened to them?”
Val told me how I had already let them in with the remote garage code on my phone.  
“I can’t remember,” I said.

But then, like recalling an elusive dream, I did kind of see myself unlocking my phone and punching in a code.  “Did I do that?” 
I was in a fog that was dense, and I couldn’t see my way out.
Val said something to me.  His sentences seemed so long.  I couldn’t follow.  I could only absorb a few words at a time.  “Can you say the first part of the sentence again?”
Suddenly I was standing near the reception desk of our boutique hotel.  My mouth was so dry.  I felt like coughing. I saw Val grab a beer from the cooler.  I asked him for water.   Or I thought I did.

“Am I talking?” I said.  
“Am I asking you for water out loud, or am I just thinking it?  Am I talking now?”
The slide projector brought me to blank slide. When I came to, a bottle of water was in my hand, and we were in the tiny glass elevator going up up up.  

“Don’t lose me,” I said. And I clutched his arm with both hands.
Then we were miraculously in our 129-square-foot room that didn’t have a closet.  Our clothes were strewn on a chair and a deep windowsill.  I contemplated undressing.  As I stood staring at our bed that took up most of the room, Val opened the beer and it sprayed all over my leather jacket that I loved so much.  I looked at my suede boots and said, “Oh shit.”  I kicked them off along with my socks, took off my gold hoop earrings, and fell into bed.

“Please let me wake up okay,” I said as I drifted into unconsciousness.  
The last thing I heard was Val saying, “Who knows how we will wake up.” His jokes weren’t funny anymore.  He wasn’t funny; he was mean.
The next day I opened my eyes.  The room smelled like beer. The floor was wet, and my boot was resting in a beery puddle. My foot was cold from not being under the covers.  
“Say something,” I commanded.  
“That was interesting,” he said.  

I showered, washed my hair, wiped down my jacket with a cloth, tried to clean my boots, brushed my teeth, and put my gold hoops back on.
We went to get breakfast. Val still had the rest of the brownie in his shirt pocket.  “Wanna bite with coffee?” he asked.  I shoved him.  
We sat on a bench overlooking the canal.  The buttery croissant melted in my mouth, and the warm coffee restored me. I zipped my leather jacket up to my neck and gave him a kiss. “Thanks for getting us back home in one piece.”
We got on our bikes and did not return to the Red Light District.  We went to the Van Gogh Museum instead.