Last Friday afternoon, after finishing the last of three articles I had due, I went to find my travel case. I had a headache so terrible that I could barely focus my vision on the computer screen. In the travel case, I found my antique Victorian pillbox, a present from my mother for my 13th birthday. In the pill box, there were two Advil…or so I thought. I tipped them into my hand, and took them with water cupped in my hand, from the faucet, underneath the waxing fluorescent lights in the bathroom.
Then I went back to my computer to do a final edit before I sent the piece to my editor. I was a few paragraphs in when the words on the page started to swim. I tried to read further, but the text jumped up, like blocks, from the page, and started moving sideways. “What the fuck did I just take?” I thought to myself.
I tried to remember what color the pills had been. They were lavender, I remembered, and tiny. My first thought was hopeful. Maybe they were Valiums. Maybe my sudden inability to move the mouse was because I was so relaxed. Maybe they were a small blessing sent to give me a little respite from myself.
But no, I was forced to admit. The lavender pills were Ambien, prescribed to me by a doctor. They weren’t even fun, because I can take them whenever I want. And they were making me hallucinate my face off.
In the murk, I somehow managed to find my friend, also a writer, who has a PhD in biochemistry on my Gchat list. “John Grey,” I said to him. “I just took two Ambien by accident. How do I stop them?”
“Drink lots of milk,” he told me, no judgments. “And then go try to throw up.”
I did what he prescribed, hallucinating all the while. Everything looked tinted and gelatinous. “Fuck me,” I said. “I don’t have the time for this.”
A few years ago, in the midst of one of my worst depressions, I picked up Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin. It was summer, and I was in the throes of an impossible romance. For a week, I rode the subway, and read it in the cool air—up to Harlem, and back to Brooklyn, from Queens to Manhattan, from Woodlawn to Union Square. Being underground with it was the only respite I had from my heat-induced misery. The book made me dream of snow and darkness and the emptiness of winter. It served as an outlet for all of my unrequited love, past and present and future.
The book is stunning. It’s an elegy to the history of New York. It’s a fairy tale of biblical proportions. It’s a fantasy novel written well (ha! you thought that was an oxymoron).
I’m trying to do justice to what it accomplishes, but I keep on typing sentences, and deleting them, because I can’t put into words how the book seems less a novel than a re-telling of some kind of epic, primal dream that I’ve had for years, but always wake up forgetting. A reviewer in the New York Times said it best:
“I find myself nervous, to a degree I don’t recall in my past as a reviewer, about failing the work, inadequately displaying its brilliance.”