“Everyone in Central Florida looks like they’re about to go to the beach,” my friend Chris said with an air of disgust. I knew what he meant even though I was a surfer.
Chris formed a pyramid of Nutrasweet on the table. The waitress’s expression suggested someone who relocated here riding hopes and dreams of eternal beachscapes and then, soon enough, watched those dreams thrown screaming off the Cocoa Beach pier. That was years ago; she had more immediate questions about life now.
“What’ll it be?” she said, her intonation betraying a double shift with no bathroom breaks.
Scott shut the menu and mumbled, chocolate shake. She snatched Scott’s menu and turned robot-like toward Chris who ordered vanilla. Then she looked at me and I said strawberry and then she snatched our menus away, but this time with an accusing scowl as if we’d stolen them from the hostess.
“I will be right back,”she said and away she went.
We sat silent there in the booth for a moment.
“Denny’s sucks,” said Chris. Scott and I agreed, Denny’s did in fact suck.
These corporate giants were equally culpable in establishing the region as a Mecca for judgmental escapists and my compadres and I sneered at the plastic sprawl about us: the homogenous shopping centers, the redundant, saccharine names for the latest development. Whether a Whispering Spring, or Rolling Hills, they all spoke to the void in every newly arrived heart. Developers swore they could be filled with a little more concrete and bug spray and a ten percent downpayment.
Orlando’s cattle-citrus culture that reigned supreme prior to the 1970s, was swiftly conquered by Walt Disney World, followed by Darden’s casual dining corporation, and the Tupperware headquarters down the road before them both. Almost overnight the land and her people changed from a rustic authenticity to plastic consumer state. We weren’t witness of course, but the ruins of orange groves between the stucco were undeniable. And within this perfectly imperfect place, we remained skeptical.
“What did you get from that Amy chick?” Chris said.
“A couple Conan the Barbarians.” I said.
Scott smiled and nodded, approvingly. “Double dose,” he said with added uptempo.
“Man, I don’t think you should take two and go out in public,” Chris, said and the room muted with the sound of Muzak again, a smooth jazz cover of the Cocteau Twins’ “Heaven Or Las Vegas.”
“This song sucks,” I said.
They both agreed, although we all secretly admired the attempt.
Conan the Barbarians were the size of a pinky nail. Before they were diced into these little squares, they filled a facsimile of the Marvel comic superhero on blotter paper. God only knows who manufactured the stuff. Well, God and the DEA, I presume. I took two on accident, but feigned that I meant to do it.
We gathered in spaces where we felt safe to express opposition to the surf shirts, mullets, and tight-rolled jeans of our high school contemporaries, as we rejected the permanent vacation attitude of our baby boomer parents. By and large, the guys in surf shirts never surfed, most people were tourists both literally and figuratively; and whether at Denny’s, Wall Street Plaza, or tonight’s destination—the nightclub Visage—everything was vulnerable to the chopping block of critique. It wasn’t the beach culture that we loathed per se, but its willful denial of reality that left us skeptical toward the spirit of Orlando transplants who seemed to grow out of the ground. This shallow outlook was exemplified by diet-flavored slogans: death by chocolate, dance like nobody’s watching, and life’s a beach, all borrowed from postcards sold in tourists shops next to googly-eyed seashells, gator heads, and citrus value packs. And we knew deep down that our revulsion was not merely bratty. And neither was our own version of escape. We were afflicted by a unique form of turrets that forever made our eyes roll.
She was sitting at a booth across the dining room with another fat girl dressed in black and wearing a dog collar. She nodded and I followed her to the back of the diner by the payphones and restrooms. Amy dipped into her purse and traded me a hit for an Abe Lincoln. My friend Marc had tipped me off earlier, she had the goods. When LSD began flowing into the hands of teenagers in the early nineties, it was only a matter of time before I found myself in a dark bedroom watching the walls breathe. Five dollars was all it cost to teleport oneself into a day glow psychosis for up to twelve hours. Dinner and a movie was four times that. No one could say we weren’t frugal.
But I didn’t know what I was doing and I swallowed the hit whole. After thirty minutes with no effect, I went back to Amy’s booth and bought another one. She warned me that these were San Francisco potent. I replied that I was an old psychedelic trooper and needed something extra, which was bullshit. Truth be told, it was only a week before that I’d tried acid for the first time and as I’ve said, I was in my bedroom. More to the point, I sat gazing at a portrait of Napoleon who spoke in a Southern drawl as he described the recipe for flapjacks. Safely, in a climate controlled suburban bedroom. In the Sabal Point development with a pool in the backyard and a thirty-year mortgage my dad refinanced annually.
Only after tic-tacking the second hit in my mouth for twenty minutes without results, did I excuse myself to the boy’s room to discover the tiny paper neatly wrapped in plastic and tinfoil like a birthday present for a cockroach. To this day I wonder if that first hit is lying dormant in my belly waiting for some important date to unwrap and send me tripping balls. At this point, I don’t think anyone would think the wiser.
“Look at these milkshakes,” Chris said.” They’re all different.”
Indeed they were: one was chocolate while the other two vanilla and pink strawberry. It all made sense, the contrast remarkable. I considered the efficiency of the world around me, the cleanliness of the diner and how everything in this post-citrus grove universe was albeit rehearsed, but without mosquitoes or water moccasins. Was it illusion? Why shouldn’t we embrace it? Why was inauthenticity reviled by us when we were to an extant, equally guilty of the same? What were we anyway?
“Life isn’t all cake and ice cream,” Scott said. He floated a spoonful of whipped cream around the table and then ate it. Chris and I laughed, wildly. Together we shared an awareness that life wasn’t all cake and ice cream. We knew life was a bad joke with brief moments of joy followed by disappointment and the crushing boredom that followed the synthetic fantasy of our parents. How our parents thought any of this suburban bullshit was sustainable is anyone’s guess. Perhaps they didn’t care, maybe they didn’t know any better. And then perhaps they simply read a compelling brochure? And in fairness, our middle class gaggle of geese knew we were blessed as we were told we were; we were also well-aware that life is a game of pay me now, or pay me later, and our impeding doom was the logical conclusion to the good life that also held us captive.
We finished our milkshakes all around the same time. As we slurped each individual last drop making that awful sound with our straws, we looked at each other and smiled and silence again fell upon our table.
Scott’s Dutch boy haircut fell Kurt Cobain style around his eyes, as he shapeshifted from silent movie débonnaire to DUI mugshot, and Chris, wearing his Union shirt and black suspenders, looked like a Depression era steel worker. I have no idea how I appeared, but we began laughing uncontrollably. The exhausted waitress rushed over like a school dance chaperone when the kids get inappropriate.
“We are still in our dinner hour,” she said sternly. Her face was decrepit and undead; her eyes black and empty, her hair disheveled. She could have been any one of a multitude of faceless drones in our service industry economy. I hadn’t experienced a bad vibe until I saw the abject hatred in her face and suddenly felt I needed to leave outright, the bad vibe moving through my body like a tasmanian devil and just as soon was gone, but lingered like a runny nose.
“Check,” Scott said.
Chris and I held our mouths shut knowing we looked like maniacs but so taken by our hysterics we didn’t care. The Muzak began to flow in wafts of Fantasia magic above us. We stood up to leave. I needed to call my mom, but when there was a new couple where Amy and the fat girl had been. And they were the type one encounters only while on psychedelics: the man was a midget and the woman wore shoulder pads under her blouse big as a linebacker. And I don’t believe this was a hallucination. They looked at me like I was an alien. Panicked, I stormed out the door.
Outside the last rays of sunshine painted the scene in rosé and a late summer shower had given the palms a brand new gleam. Scott’s Trans Am appeared as though it’d just been waxed as we dodged the standing water like giants hurdling tiny lakes in the parking lot.
“Don’t step on the lava,” Scott said.
On our way to Visage we listened to the college radio station as “Next is the E” by Moby brought our spirits to new heights and we strode upon the streetlights like passing stars at light speed and the dashboard morphed into the cockpit of the God damn space shuttle.
Visage was empty when we arrived, it was still early, and the DJ played alternative standards by notables such as Sisters of Mercy, Shriekback, and Nitzer Ebb. Later on he’d play Digital Underground’s “Deeper Shade of Soul” and everyone could pretend they were urban for under five minutes. It was a Friday night ritual, pretending; still a viable practice while trapped in the limbo that are the teen years.
We found a spot on the bleachers overlooking the dancefloor, tiled checkerboard like a Masonic lodge, a nod to occult knowledge; (however long it remained hidden was anyone’s guess) and a crowd began to form, each new patron frisked before entry, funneled inside. The music shifted to cosmic-themed bumping bass numbers, interstellar atomic bursts of dissected light and space time. A haven for high school pariahs, the city’s rejected Disney face characters: skateboarders in oversized corduroys and ironic t-shirts, fat goth girls wearing ankle-length skirts and concert t-shirts and mismatched Halloween makeup, and a few guys dressed up like characters from A Clockwork Orange for good measure. Under the increasing power of the hallucinations, the circus might have proverbially come to town. The three of us sat motionless and allowed our five dollars to reach full potential.
“I’m on gold key,” she said.
Kitty Amadon moved from Ireland when she was five years old, her family settling in the northern suburbs of Orlando. Her brogue had faded years before, but since the popularity of rap group House of Pain, and subsequent reaffirmation of Irish as default ethnicity for otherwise average white people, felt obliged to resurrect said brogue in order to standout among the fakers. This was a failure. She spoke in cereal commercial clichés, and thus won the nickname Lucky Charms, which years later offered a novel stage name for her work on the gentlemen’s club set. Such is life. But she was nice enough and stood before us making odd hand gestures and body movements in celebration of her own acid trip. “C’mon,” she said, grabbing my hand and dragging me onto the dance floor where I harnessed the grace of a beached porpoise to Electronic’s “Disappointed.”
Taking my hand again, she then moved us to the second level that looked out on the tiled floor now covered in Orlando’s misfit class. The strobe lights and nightclub fog machine synchronized with the thump of the disco haunting from the DJ booth. What was a usual source of sardonic laughter by our crew became compliments to the galactic cathedral of sound and light as I moved with Kitty, and we were swallowed by the atmosphere. Briefly, silence fell upon the space but then Mix Factory’s “Take Me Away” burst through the speakers with its opening riff of electronic wonder like an unfurled liberation flag. The makeshift boiler room beat began with a start, the rhythm crescendoed as an expression of all that was truth in this momentary dogma of new faith and a farewell to all things wrong with the world as it built upon itself in color and imminent power shared for all who might receive. The energy from us poured in and out of our skin in waves of science fiction as the music filled in where the energy had left and then became one within us and compounded itself over and again as my heart raced.
Everything was getting on well enough until the triumphant song ended and a remix of Karl Douglas’ classic “Kung Fu Fighting” began to play and sensory overload drifted me beyond the pale. The crowd became angry—faced extras from the film Big Trouble in Little China. I closed my eyes, certain the darkness would drown them out, but much like young Kitty’s failed brogue, this idea was shortsighted (putting it lightly). The acid opened my mind like a pop-up book to a gallery of Chinese dragons getting their groove on and it was either sink into the checkerboard, or become dinner to one of these reptilians. I shuffled and bumped through the scales until I escaped through the exit.
The audible contrast outside from the furious pounding inside left me alone with my thoughts shouting multi-hued pictographs flowing about my head like bat-butterfly hybrids. Still it was better than the extra frills inside. Without a reference point, and peaking on what was once mere five-dollar wallet space, I paced around the parking lot alone, every step fighting gravity as if on the surface of the moon.
A guy and a girl sat outside the fire exit holding a conversation when I caught their attention.
“You alright?” he said. They began whispering as it occurred to me that my legs were now tentacles, the suctions having a difficult time traversing the asphalt. My hands had grown webs and had increased to a meter wide and just as soon reversed to their original size while the webs remained.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” I said.
A pause. I stared at the webbed fingers.
“Oh my God!” the girl shrieked. “That kid’s on acid!”
They knew! How they knew is still a mystery, but it was apparent the outside provided no sanctuary. I thought to hide my octopus form, but my legs had returned to human legs, praise the Lord, and I quickly tried my best to compose myself as I approached the bouncers at the door, determined to reunite inside with the dragon dancers.
“Hey man, what time you got?”
The bouncer was a large man with bulging eyes that might explode at any moment. I made the mistake of gazing at my wristwatch which was making a Dalí impression on my arm, growing, melting, somehow it shot me The Bird. Still I stared, for hours, seemingly.
“Hey man–” he said and grabbed my arm to have a look for himself. His eyes were red.
“This shit is broke,” he said throwing my arm into Osceola County Mr. Fantastic style. He asked me something else, but suddenly I lost my first language. Quickly, I grabbed my standby, French, and began to explain my situation, to no avail. Unsurprisingly, this burly fellow was no Francophone. He asked if I assumed he was Haitian.
“You think I’m Haitian or some shit?”
He turned to the other bouncer, runner up for lead singer of RATT. They laughed and laughed. I made a command decision to walk away. Surely this would stop. It began to rain.
I felt an odd sensation about my neck underneath my chin as I found shelter under an awning by Scott’s Trans Am and when I saw my reflection in the glass window, I had grown gills, of course. I knelt down, trying to calm my mind. I sat there for years. How would I live life as this amphibian freak? More importantly, how could I ever score a date again? The Cure’s entire album “Faith” played in my head. I tried to change the record but found I could only flip it to the second side and it played on. A car pulled up polluting the air with Milli Vanilli but I appreciated the change from the Cure’s droning. Four teeny boppers climbed out, a rainbow of offensive neon and poofed Aquanet hair. As they approached one of them said, “Aw, he looks sad,” and I felt the coziness of compassion. But when I looked up, their faces were melting and I turned away. They laughed and continued on. I sat there for another decade before Chris showed up.
“Where you been?”
I had not yet regained my English abilities.
“C’mon. We’re going downtown.”
Scott emerged on the scene with Kitty and three other girls, one of whom looked out of place, like the teeny boppers on their sightseeing tour, she wore a New Kids on the Block t-shirt and a pair of Keds. Her name was Erin. Scott was trying to court her and she was pretty so no one said anything about her t-shirt. Everyone was high on acid. Seven teenagers totally sardined into the Trans Am. I crammed myself in the center of the front seat and began to imagine how I’d be transformed into modern art if we crashed.
We stopped at a gas station on Orange Avenue and crept out, the streetlights and stop signs becoming museum pieces as we spread out and viewed them individually with unpretentious awe. Kitty grabbed my webbed fingers and told me about her future endeavors, none of which included a spot at Mons Venus, Tampa’s world famous strip club, but with the bad vibes fading, this was as important to me as her talk of law school, which made me laugh.
The night sky grew old bidding farewell from blue to orange and the crisp morning air of late summer introduced itself to another day, morning time being the rare instance when one can feel semblance of seasonal shift on the peninsula. The effects of our five dollar mind candy began to recede. We found ourselves in another Denny’s diner, crowded with variations of the town’s teenage subgroups, and making plans for later that evening: the girls were dropping more acid and going to Disney World, Scott and Erin were off to a pool party on International Drive, the tourist side of town.
Afterwards, with the sun in full bloom, Scott dropped me off at my parent’s three bedroom, two bath in Longwood. My mom was on the porch thumbing through a photo album from the late seventies, memories of her days working at Disney. She’d take me out there for free. Only then did it strike me what a lucky kid I was. She pointed out a picture. There I was, smallish and sitting upright in a stroller on Main Street, USA, Dad all smiles and youthful. I could still smell the popcorn in the air that I later learned was fake, pumped into the sky by imagineers, but I also could smell the cigars of the Cuban abuelos, their woven slippers and fedoras, their linen guayaberas; hear their lyrical Spanish as they embraced the little niños for a day of Florida sunshine and magic, all too real to have been faked, underneath those orange skies of innocence and vulnerability.
I went into my safe suburban bedroom and drifted off, residual day glow shapes appearing behind my eyelids. I thought about the future. I still think of the past.
Years later, the pedestrian hordes grew into adulthood. The men donned ill-fitting suits and the women dressed themselves in floral-patterned dresses like regrettable wallpaper at a dentist’s office. To make matters worse, many also wore shoulder pads. They achieved painfully boring college degrees that were financially lucrative, but still set out to destroy the lives of gullible strangers whether through real estate, corporate business, or conservative politics in the local tradition.
As we became adults, many became addicts and neurotics bolstered by surrender to our own perfect lives of a thirty-year mortgage and all modern conveniences, but for these brief moments on Friday nights, we were masters of our own ceremony, defiantly victorious.