Basements by "Dear 23"

“Dear 23” is the pseudonym for an Ivy-educated woman living in New York City. From glimpses of her parents’ hidden spaces as a child, through dances and walks with friends and lovers, and into the remote valleys of Turkey, Dear 23 brings us into her intensified sensory experiences, her creative artistic expressions, and the secrets of decades.

I can’t remember exactly how old I was that day, but I couldn’t have been more than ten, since the latch on the door was difficult to reach. It was one of those rare moments during my childhood when I was alone, and I always took advantage of such opportunities to seek out the forbidden – furtively reading my parents’ copy of the Kama Sutra, peering into the exotic bottles in their liquor cabinet, rifling through odd drawers. Today, I was tiptoeing around my disheveled basement, seeking the unknown. I had made my way past the abandoned canvases from my father’s bout with painting, trudged through the piles of clothes to be taken to Good Will, and jumped on the mostly-springless brocade couch. I stood at the entry to the furnace room, staring at a door I had never noticed before. It stood, unassuming, to the left of the furnace, kept closed by a small scrap of wood shoved through the latch.

Standing on the top of my toes, I slowly pulled the wood out and stepped back to let the door swing open. Before me was a room full of plants neatly arranged like a staircase, and above them, the most dazzling display of lights I had ever seen. I was captivated. Something inside me knocked on my consciousness, saying something about this is weird. They were just plants, and my house was filled with plants. What was so odd about that? I pondered this question for a minute, and decided that the fact that I only discovered them during one of my stealthy excursions was reason enough to be wary. I carefully stepped down off the small ledge that comprised the threshold, shut the door, and relodged the wood in the latch. I never asked my parents about what I saw.

*                  *                   *

Thanksgiving, senior year in high school: I have escaped from familial gorging with my cousin, who is two years older than me chronologically, but worlds ahead experientially. She has brought me to one of her friend’s houses – his parents are nowhere to be seen – and we are standing in his garage, surrounded by cans of oil and rusting bicycles. I am shivering slightly in my dress pants, turtleneck sweater, and headband, though perhaps more from the jitters that embody my naiveté than from cold. With some assistance from my cousin, I hesitantly smoke out of a purple Graffix bong. We then descend into her friend’s basement bedroom, armed with Honey Nut Cheerios, and watch “Beverly Hills 90210.” I spend more time watching his cat, whose tail is whirring in loop-de-loops, making a faint whe-te-te-te, whe-te-te-te sound as it whips past the shag carpet. They ask me, am I high? I say I don’t know, maybe not, but boy does that cat look weird, and the TV is a big, strange box, and it’s Thanksgiving, and I’m laughing, I think.

*                  *                   *

February, senior year of high school: He is my first boyfriend, I think. Or rather, we are entangled in a dizzying game of friend, lover, lover, friend. We are on a date, perhaps, for it involves dinner and, ostensibly, a movie. Naked Lunch. I am driving my “little tank,” my 1979 Volvo stick-shift, and talking about drugs. He grew up in a seriously Deadicated household, saw his first “show” when I was still playing with play dough, and at 17, had already altered his mind more times than a wedding dress. I tell him I want to smoke with him, so we skip the movie, pick up his best friend and his latest girlfriend, and head for the basement.

“What do you see? Tell me everything,” he is imploring, vicariously experiencing my first real high like the day, long ago, when he had his. I have my eyes closed, sitting cross-legged on his thinly carpeted basement floor, and I am speaking ribbons into the air.

    “I am reaching up, pushing on a great weight. It might be my skull, only I’m on the inside. I can feel a world around me outside, and I am leaning all my weight on the wall, trying to get out…..Now I’ve opened the door, or pushed through the wall, or cracked my head, but I slither out and I’m surrounded by brilliant blue, and I’m flying. Flying. Slowly at first, like I’m getting the cricks out of my neck, or my arms, but I’m gathering speed. On either side of me, I can see people I know. My parents, friends, my grandmother, they’re scattered around, floating in space, and I wave at some of them as I pass by. I’m flying higher and faster now, and I am leaving all of them behind me, twisting into the sky. I have now reached a completely open space, like the top of Spaceship Earth at Epcot Center, when you reach that place of suspension at the very top, before your car starts to drop down the other side, the part that’s outer space, when you dive into the future. I’m alone, I’m being held up by the wind. I’m spinning, spinning, spinning.”

Wow, he says, and I grin in tingly disbelief. We leave his friends in the basement, gather Zephyr, his dog, into our haze, and enter the frigid clarity of the New England night.

*                  *                   *

I have a Granny Smith apple rammed into my jacket. A paper clip, a stick of Trident gum, and a jagged square of my window screen (hacked out with a Swiss army knife to use as a makeshift screen for our apple-turned-pipe) fill my jeans’ pocket. My roommate huddles next to me as we seek unremarkable trees under which to smoke. We smirk over eating the apple and tossing the core when we’re done with it, giggling through our shaky attempts at unwrapping the small rectangles of flavored rubber that we so frequently chew.

I have to keep a journal for my Writing Seminar, and invariably fill it with images of flower petals and pedal pushers, and I have never written just for the sound of the words before and there are so many words to be written. I read my writing out loud a lot, and my roommate nods knowingly, or squints sympathetically, or jumps off of her bed and onto mine, makes me put the paper down, and feeds me a diet cocoa/ confectioner’s sugar concoction she has the audacity to call frosting. We learn the roads of our new urban home better than anyone else we know, because, living in a dorm, we take long walks to smoke. I realize that our horizons are broader, our psychological maps more nuanced, and all for the sake of a deserted road to serve as our concert hall as we rap “Little Drummer Boy” onto a wooden pipe with a lighter.

*                  *                   *

A cream-soft T-shirt hangs lackadaisically off her right shoulder. Braids whip against the side of her head as she spins with increasing speed. I bend my knees deeply, extending my arms over my head from my waist. We are swimming in late afternoon winter sun, misted with our own sweat, working out choreography through intense improvisation and movement play. We are very high.

I catch my dance partner’s eye and she cocks her head slightly and nods, in her “yea, girl, I know” way. The baby grand piano in the corner seems to shrug and say, c’mon, try to impress me, I’ve seen a lot of dancers. The slippery wood floor throws me a skid and I take it to a slide, playing right along. We fling and flop and flow for hours upon hours, madly crystallizing beauty in a notebook, screaming anguish and exaltation without speaking.

Later, we will discuss our notes and begin the endless process of rearranging, altering an arm movement here or a spin there, to perfect our form and clarify our guiding concepts for ourselves and our dancers. We will take the uninhibited expression that flowed so freely and reexamine it in the light of sobriety, knowing that in returning to any improvisation session, some things stay and some things go. That freedom, however, is an integral part of the process. For now, though, feeling spent of energy and somewhat more sober, we slide our tired into our shoes and scuff up the stairs of our artist colony home.

*                  *                   *

The town has only one street, really, and a dead-end one at that. My boyfriend and I are staying at the Paradise Pension, in a room “big enough to play football (i.e. soccer) in.” After two months of grueling travel, we are blissfully grateful to have Mehmet, our host, give us our first native experience in Turkey. He drives us to the Ihlara Valley, filled with rock-cut churches carved by early Christians in hiding from persecution, and detours our return trip to buy fish for dinner from three men who keep their catch in a small pool, only beheading on demand.

That night, the other off-season travelers – mostly Canadian and Australian – join us in preparing a feast with Mehmet and his other friends, all small-town men who learned how to make a bundle in the four months of wild tourism in the region. Following dinner, a fifty-odd-year old weathered man opens his tattered bomber jacket and extracts the largest joint I have ever seen, wrapped in a careful cone, lined with aluminum foil. He begins to tell me how the locals grow their own marijuana, but that the police can be strict – when they choose to be – so we have to be discreet. He then lights it and hands it to me.

Astounded, having meticulously formulated an impression of the country that specifically excludes any activity of this sort, I graciously accept his offer and proceed to get “mad baked” with five Turkish men, my then-boyfriend, and a nomad American male. We lounge on the roof deck of the pension, taking in the bizarre surroundings, mostly oddly hewn caves carved into a material known as “tuff,” the crumbly clay-like substance left from a volcanic eruption many centuries ago. Through years of erosion, the tuff has formed countless phallus-like pillars – so much so that one area is affectionately known as the Valley of Love. The sky is slightly pink, and a striated mesa – which we shall climb the next day – guards the horizon.

These men live in a world unknown to me and barely understood, yet on these nights, in the pink and sweet blur of the Fred Flinstonesque landscape, we relate to each other as humans, simply that. Eventually, we will depart, for more parts unexplored, but not without bidding farewell in its truest sense, hoping that they all will fare well and that someday we may meet again.

*                  *                   *

A few years ago, I was home visiting my parents. I promised my roommate at the time that I would bring back gardening supplies, should we ever want to risk “growing” in our apartment. Subconsciously, out of habit, perhaps, I found myself waiting until my parents were out one day to descend the basement stairs and return to the small room next to the furnace. I had stowed my limited growing supplies there after graduating from college, at which point the room had turned into a disorganized storage space, retaining only the faintest vestiges of its prior incarnation.

The shard of wood still held the warped door in place, and I felt a vague sense of shrinking as I removed it, mentally regressing to my first encounter with the room. As the door creaked gently on its hinges, I started. No longer glutted with old wool coats and beach pails, instead the room was lined with six massive pots, each with a sawed-off trunk, flanked with a bank of lights, wired from the ceiling. Thoughts began running through my mind….they have grown here within the past year …where do they keep it?…why is this still being kept a secret from me?…what would I tell my children?

As I mused over my undirected distress, I realized anew that marijuana still holds a special niche in our culture that demands clandestine behavior generally reserved only for aberrant sexual practices and adult love for children’s television programming. This beautiful tool that I use for creativity in artistic expression, to heighten any sensory experience, to reinforce the existing or newly forming bonds of friendship that I find so readily within its confines, and so much more, is relegated to the basements of our lives, the unacknowledged corners of otherwise honorable homes.

As I think about the difficulty I still have in discussing marijuana openly with my parents – who obviously don’t think it is evil or the great gateway to the road to debauchery – I wonder how this situation can be remedied. It would be too easy to get angry with them for not owning up to their behavior; our society would ostracize them. I don’t have a quick-fix solution, but I hope that my children and their contemporaries will have a more balanced view of the nature and uses of marijuana than that which predominates today.

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