An excerpt from the upcoming novel “The Stand Up”
His friend Jack, who knew all about these sorts of things, described it as “like an orgasm, but for your soul,” which was the most animated he’d ever been about anything. It had been called “peak” in the ‘90s, “absolute” in the early 2000s, before people started confusing it for the vodka company. In reality, there wasn’t much to confuse it with.
Fuzzhead made you feel all the happiness you were capable of feeling. The process, Jack said, was just like turning off a series of lights in the brain: one by one the different regions with their specialized goals and functions would dim and blinker into silence (fuzzing) until the reward circuit (amygdala—nucleus accumbens—ventral tegmental area) had sole domination of all the blood flowing above the neck. Then dopamine and serotonin would be off like fireworks, only more than that, more intense than any pleasure you could get from other drugs, or sex, or anything at all, really. And the only thing standing between the average user and addiction was the incredible scarcity of the drug–if it weren’t for Jack, Simon would have never had a chance getting his hands on it.
Of course it was extremely dangerous, dimming the regions of the brain associated with breathing and similar functions meant that Fuzzhead had already racked up a high death count. Simon never quite went into anything so haphazardly as to not do a quick google search before taking the pill, scanning both the brief Wikipedia entry and several longer forums dedicated to illegal substances. Users found it very difficult to speak, since the left-frontal lobe was also running on very little fuel. But these were very minor concerns to Jack, who seemed half-immortal anyway. Jack could take any street drug in the world, and no matter how drunk or stoned he already was, no matter how foul or impure the mixture was, he always ended up evading a hospital bed somehow.
But still. All the happiness you could possibly feel? There was something a little too decisive about that, he thought. Like hearing a doctor’s final diagnosis, or getting your SAT scores. Simon didn’t want to know how much happiness he was capable of feeling, unless it was really really high. And even then, he contemplated vaguely the idea of sitting in some future Christmas, a wife and kids around him, thinking bleakly to himself that the whole thing was only about thirty percent of that one time as a twenty-four year old when he’d taken Fuzzhead on a beanbag in Jack’s bedroom. And even his fairly strong natural skepticism was easily overwritten. There were only two thoughts in his head: I’m scared, and I want to feel happy, and weighing the two against each other, he decided it was easier to simply stop being scared.
He tossed it in his mouth, a jaunty move to try and disguise his fear, and washed it down with a can of Coke. It tasted bitter, about halfway between what he imagined bleach and car exhaust to taste like. He told Jack, half jokingly, that he’d only know it was working if he could get the fucking taste out of his mouth—only way he’d feel any happiness at all was if he could forget what it felt like on his tongue. Jack shot him a dark look and said nothing. Pleasure wasn’t something to joke about, with him. Simon was briefly reminded of his friend Abby from high school, deeply religious, who used to scowl at him every time he made fun of the Bible, which had become a sport in and of itself to him.
There wasn’t a lot to do while waiting for it to hit. You certainly wanted to be in possession of all your senses, Jack told him, mostly so you could have the novel experience of feeling them soften and mute themselves one after the other.
It wasn’t unpleasant, he could say that much. Once his body got over the initial suspicion of being re-configured, and the fight or flight instincts had all died away, it felt as easy and natural as changing the channel on a TV. He’d had never been to a sensory deprivation tank, but Jack had many times during his first stint trying to “get clean,” and from his description Simon thought it might have felt something like this. He stopped hearing cars in the street outside, and the neighbor yelling at his wife, and heard only his heartbeat, until even that slowed, and the edges of his vision blurred as if they had been singed away.
His head naturally came to rest against the drywall, although he wasn’t exactly conscious of it doing so. Fifteen minutes in, all the “fuzzing” had already taken place. There was now nothing going on in his brain aside from pleasure. At least, in theory. The very first thing he felt was a dulled twinge of fear that breathing seemed to take so much exceptional effort, but even that was killed off very quickly. Jack was lounging on his bed with a beatific smile, hands folded nicely on his chest looking so much like some medieval Saint’s coffin that Simon was almost unsure it was him. His eyes opened and he turned his head slowly toward Simon. “Can you feel…” his eyes were wet and every passing second seemed to make him happier and more at peace. So serene was he that he never felt the need to finish his sentence, but squeezed his eyes shut.
Simon thought he could feel it. No, he was pretty sure. He felt, okay, alright, really, not too bad. Or better, maybe, than he had ever felt, but not by very much. It was a shockingly mundane feeling, an organic sensation that he now realized he had come very close to several times, several ordinary times. There wasn’t anything qualitatively different about it to sex, or being drunk, or, depressingly, leaving work on a Friday afternoon. And as good as it was to feel that way again it bothered him to risk stopping his very breathing and suffocating to death right there in Jack’s shitty bedroom…
But it was a happy anger, a very joyous frustration. It exploded deep in his stomach and coursed through him with thunder. It felt good. He thought maybe some emotion other than anger would have felt better, but trust him to ruin even perfect happiness. To be angry and worried when he should have been anything else. Calming down, all the passion was replaced with a gentle happiness, and he felt as people were supposed to feel—lighthearted, placid. He didn’t see anything, there weren’t any hallucinations or visions or sudden moments of clarity. Every single synapse in his head was focused on one thing–the sensation of happiness. As it were.
In college Simon had known a woman named Kathy who liked to go running. She spoke often about the “runner’s high” the only high that could be boasted about in public without people judging you, and he had always politely ignored her. She would show up at random intervals, in neon yellow body armor shirts, talking excitedly about marathons she was about to do. Simon thought a lot about Kathy on the comedown, and how she used to cross distances just because they were there, and sweat and burn and ache. Beneath it all he never sensed any actual feeling of accomplishment, true, she never rested on her laurels but it seemed to him more than that. There seemed to him a group of people who were failures on a simple biological level in that they could not, and would not ever be all that much happier than they currently were, and in increasingly sadistic and increasingly subconscious ways they punished their bodies and beat their brains into submission, only able to be aware that when they happened to stand on a peak, there was only air above them.