The reluctance of awareness seeps in. Disorientation; sounds filtering in through a distant fog; slowly remembering, ah yes, here I am once again. Only a few moments to relax before the craving sets in again, the classic trope of micro-addiction, the urgency and immediacy of psychic cotton candy rousing my body to action. Consciousness is power-cycling rapidly; I am enmeshed in a glorified head rush, already seeking once again the pleasing obliteration that is just around the corner.
I expel the air from my lungs. I raise the balloon to my lips. I inhale deeply.
An ontological blitzkrieg follows, a lush acceleration into crystalline amazement. Building on previous inhalations, I am launched into a tumultuous serenity, an exquisite freedom from responsibility, motor control, ethical systems. I’m a giant, pleasure-filled cloud. Sliding slowly down onto my back, I am free-falling into cluelessness, into “the place where you go away,” as my wife describes it. Surprising and unnecessary flashbacks appear randomly on the screen saver of my mind, conversations long discarded, geography long abandoned. Sliding, slowly, backward, until—
–a jarring hiss as the balloon slips away, a moment very similar to loading a whippet into a cracker backwards and wondering what the hell is going on. Someone shouts about drug abuse, and then I am rudely snapped back into place like a rubber band fired from another dimension. Eyes open against their will, the room spinning into focus, social contexts flashing as rapidly as disco lights. It is an embarrassing return to duty.
An even louder hiss just a few feet away – someone is loading up another balloon from a large tank full of nitrous oxide. The room is full of people, laughing, enjoying themselves, although the harsh calculations of balloon economics inform all action. The person loading the balloons is engaged in, on the one hand, that most selfless of actions: distributing nitrous to other people, which is to say, not taking it all himself. Still, a breath from every balloon ensures that this person stays plenty high throughout the duration of his shift. Every open set of eyes in the room watches each successive balloon make its way from the tank to the person closest.
Indeed, those closest to the tank embody the thoughtlessness of surrender, of willingly reducing the self to a simple set of primal urges, a state where “one for you, two for me” is a holy maxim. Crazed hippie idealism gives way to existential supremacy; I am high, therefore I am. Watching closely, waiting for an opening, otherwise friendly sorts spar and duel for control of the nearest balloon in the midst of a ludicrous community of insensate hyenas. Indeed, I am chagrined by how recently that was me, attempting to intercept a balloon that someone else had claimed.
Finally, at long, long last, an enormous, delicious balloon is handed my direction. But even as I desperately seek to appease my timeless infatuation, I can tell there are those on the outskirts, too far from the tank to make a direct impression on He Who Controls The Gas. With heavy heart, a great sacrifice is made. I have not been asked; I simply give of my own free will – what little of it remains after the sensory bludgeoning of the evening’s debauchery. I hand the balloon. I make eye contact with a near complete stranger. She smiles. Friendships form in the dizziness of approaching ecstasy.
Time passes; momentum is squandered; I will have to start again from scratch. Perhaps if I am lucky, this time I will receive an even larger balloon, one with sufficient gas to ensure that I will be properly catapulted into the sublime. My previous gesture has not gone unnoticed; instant karma has rewarded me, and I am handed the prize. Or rather, the physical manifestation of the prize, for the transformation I seek is truly Just Around The Corner, waiting for me, waiting for this next inhalation, waiting for—
–the overwhelming exuberance of consciousness slipping away, once more, once more. I have reached such a tranquil place, a dream-like loss of permanence, a vacancy of presence. And yet, each turn of the merry-go-round produces diminishing returns. The relentless march of the absurd has produced an exhaustion of desire. I am immersed in the futility of disillusionment; no amount wishing will bring the magic back. I remember walking through my first Grateful Dead parking lot and hearing that first hidden tank announce its presence to the initiated; those days held such promise. Now an unpleasant saturation signals that I have trod too long upon these shores.
It is often said that nitrous only truly “works” its magic while under the influence of other psychedelics, but William James was not on acid. Still, the elusive mystery of “the place where you go away” is akin to a hall of mirrors, an amusing distortion of the signal that “I” generate. Nitrous is perhaps better thought of as a palate-cleanser. Wipe the slate clean before charging into the truly unmarked regions! Enjoy the all too brief frequencies of joy that nitrous offers, for they will dissipate before memory even records that they actually happened!