Toked Affection

Ben said he could score some pot. Ben said he knew the neighborhood. Ben said...

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I’ve smoked a lot of weed in my day. Blunts with boys on stoops in bad neighborhoods, metal pipes with middle-aged Buddhists, roaches with an old man hooked up to an oxygen tank at a Dead concert, and gravity bongs made out of POM bottles. I would never classify my avocation as an addiction. But perhaps an appetite? Something old Aristotle might say is “the cause of all actions that appear pleasant”? I’d say so.

One would assume that a philosopher would approve of such appetites. Weed does, after all, inspire thinking, pondering, concluding — all that good stuff. But reading a line from his Rhetoric gave me a twinge of uneasiness, as though an assumed supporter no longer stood by me. He writes, “A ‘criminal act’ … is due to moral badness, for that is the source of all actions inspired by our appetite.”

I never saw this hobby as “bad,” for I wasn’t harming anyone. If anything, I was spreading love and uniting random groups of people like a member of the Peace Corps. Yeah, it’s “illegal,” but I don’t sell and I’d never mugged a person for their pot, so am I still “morally bad?”

And are my actions “criminal” strictly because they’re banned by law? Whereas if I had been born in Amsterdam I wouldn’t be performing an act deemed “criminal” and therefore not filled with moral badness by Aristotle’s standards? If that were the case, would my leisure pursuit still be inspired by appetite?

Not that I am, or ever have been, too concerned about it.

On my third day in Valencia, Spain, where I was studying for the summer, I stood in the booze aisle of the supermarket. Not yet 21 years old, I was as happy as a pig in shit. Liquor. Wine. Liters of beer in plastic containers.

Twenty feet to my right were Spanish versions of cheese curls, potato chips, and artificially flavored two-bite bread snacks. I noticed a boy wearing a Yankees hat holding the bruschetta bites in one hand, and the pizza-flavored variation in the other. He was pale and freckled — most definitely not a native.

I made it to the checkout with lettuce (my host Mom didn’t let us use hers), beer, vodka (my host Mom only drank gin), ice cream bars, and chewing gum. While the long-fingernailed, middle-aged woman with a huge hole above her lip scanned my items, the boy in the Yankees hat appeared behind me in line. He had chosen the bruschetta flavor.

“You from New York?” I asked him, nodding my head toward his hat.

“Virginia.” He shook his head, “You?”

“Philly,” I smiled. “I’m studying here for the next couple weeks.”

“Sweet.” He bared huge chompers. “Me too.”

He and his University of Viginia buddies were stationed across the street at a sidewalk table in the shade, clearly exploiting the three-Estrella-miniature-beers-for-one-Euro deal that lasted until 10:00 each night. At least 40 empty bottles sat on the metal table.

As we approached, Alex — a blond with a goatee, black shirt tucked into black belted jeans, and black sneakers — shouted, “OH FUCK YES, SNACKS! AND A LADY?”

A tall, dark, and handsome number emerged from the bar’s interior, somehow managing to hold nine beers in his two hands. “God,” I thought, staring. “I love Spaniards.” He walked over to our table, where I was still standing, unsure if I should join them in consumption or carry my groceries the few blocks home.

“Oh, hey,” the exotic-looking boy said to me, in an accent not far from my own. “I’m Ben — take my seat.” American, but still beautiful. He handed me a cerveza and pulled up another chair.

Nine beers later, I was still there. My lettuce had grown soggy in the June heat, but my ice cream had not yet managed to seep out of its box.

“We’re here every afternoon,” Alex said. “Literally. Well, if we’re not at the beach. But as you can tell from my skin tone I’d rather be here at Castillo.”

“Yeah,” Ben laughed. “Here drinking or somewhere random smoking hash. I got the hook up.”

“Seriously?” I asked, slamming my beer down and causing bottles to clank together.

“Oh hell yeah,” he smiled. “You should join us tonight.”

I walked home buzzed and beaming — bookbag, plastic shopping bag, four-liter-value-pack of beer bound in a plastic carrier, twelfth Estrella pony, and appetite in hand. It had been a week, and I was itchin’ to get high in this foreign land.

Aristotle may not approve of criminal acts, but he does admit, “The things it is pleasant to expect are those that when present are felt to afford us either great delight or great but not painful benefit.” The hash was amazing. I couldn’t decide if this boy or this getting high was the benefit to the already delightful other.

We all hung out a few more times, and my appetite increased in more ways than one. I wanted my own stash, and I also wanted Ben, maybe even more so. I gauged Ben’s interest, and based on the fact that he made it a point to buy me at least one round of three-for-one-Euro beers each day, even if it meant breaking a five and I had a single waiting in my hand, I decided that the attraction was mutual.

One evening, it was just the two of us. I mentioned, while taking a hit of his spliff, that I wanted some goods of my own. “I got you covered,” he told me. “I was here a term before everyone else, so I know the neighborhood to score what you want like the back of my hand.”

“Oh,” I let out a puff of smoke, “really?”

“Oh yeah. I’ve been there TONS of times, so I know a few guys. They’re like my friends at this point. Plus, my memory’s great and I have an awesome sense of direction. We won’t need a map or anything.”

It was 3:00 in the afternoon, and I was sweating as we zigzagged through this strange barrio. It was so tempting to stop in any one of the bars we’d been walking by. I was thirsty. But more intensely than thirst, I had this appetite. After an hour of walking, his “Left,” “Right,” and “Straight”  were said with disappearing confidence. We stood at a four-way intersection. He looked right, left, behind him, and upward. I asked him, “Who are we even looking for?”

“Anyone that looks shady. Someone dirty, wearing a fanny pack or book bag. Maybe someone with dreadlocks.” I wondered why we hadn’t asked any one of the 50 shabby people we’d already passed. I bit my tongue and waited to be impressed, as I was assuming I would be. And I’m sure he was been waiting for the right dealer and moment to impress.

Eventually we reached a plaza that reeked of urine, where stray dogs walked and lay about. “Let’s sit down for a sec,” he suggested, nervously.

We were approached by a limping, skinny, older man covered in dirt. He stood in front of us, facing away. I held my breath in anticipation. “Drogas?” Ben finally asked.

The old man continued to face away. “HeroínaCocaina?,” he inquired. Ben just kind of stared at the sandy ground. “Para fumar,” I piped in impatiently. “Hashish.”

The man asked us to come with him, not specifying where. “No, aquí,” Ben told him, demanding that we stay where we were. The dirty, shoeless man walked across the plaza, giving handshake-hugs to other dirty, shoeless men he passed. He spoke with a dreadlocked guy on a bike, who opened his backpack and shamelessly handed our new friend a little something. He limped back over to us wearing a smirk.

The hash was in a thin brick form, sitting directly in this man’s filthy, sweaty hand. “Twenty Euro,” he told us. Ben inhaled deeply, pushing out his chest, and cleared his throat. “Uhh,” he paused, then looked at me, asking in English if I thought this was worth twenty Euro.

“No — más.” I told the man I wanted more for twenty Euro, wondering why my opinion had even been sought. Wasn’t Ben the expert? The old man laughed, shook his head, and returned to his supplier — as though he was the waiter, returning the food we demanded “hotter” to the kitchen. I wondered if the tip was included. I looked at Ben, who seemed uncomfortable and picked at his fingernails.

The man came back with nearly twice as much, and this time I laughed — good enough.

Ben seemed distracted and seemingly ashamed of “being all talk” as we tried to navigate our way out of the neighborhood, using the smell of trash and animal waste as markings of where to hastily head in the opposite direction. He didn’t speak, so I didn’t speak, wondering if he was coming up with something to say or trying desperately to remember where we had to turn. I felt somewhat embarrassed for him: He had built up his skill set and network of “a few guys,” only to fail at presenting anything of the sort. Did he have performance anxiety? Was he notoriously full of shit? Or was he nervous because he liked me?

After Ben accidentally steered us back to the very plaza where we had made the drug deal, we gave up and took a taxi back to the bar. Alex, Brent, and another kid sat at the same table as the day before — or every day, for that matter — drinking the tiny beers. Ben didn’t say a word for the rest of the afternoon. He sat with a furrowed brow, peeling his beer label, the classic sign of sexual frustration. Perhaps he realized he had blown what he hoped was a step in the right direction to appease some other appetite.

“So it’s my turn to contribute. Who wants to smoke at, like, 11:00?” I asked.

“Word,” Alex replied.

“I’m down, man,” Brent RSVP’ed.

The new kid told us he didn’t smoke, and so we all turned to look at Ben. “I’m, um,” he hesitated, “gonna pass.”

This was odd. Despite his failure at leading that afternoon, he was usually the initiator, roller, packer, and ringleader of the smoking sessions.

“What?” Alex asked. “You don’t wanna smoke? What’s up, man?”

Ben licked his lips and shook his head, finishing his beer and leaving a few moments later without much of a goodbye. The remaining four of us looked at each other with confusion.

I decided that when I saw him next I would try to make him feel as though I was unaffected by our little drug-acquiring-adventure. After all, I was interested in him before any of this “let-me-show-you-all-I-can-do” talk. His helplessness was a turn-off, but I’d get over it if he would.

But Ben consistently kept to himself when I’d come around. When I told him that our hash was awesome and he had to try it, he merely half-smiled, still looking down. I was confused, but not too bothered. His “big talk” was a little much, but who was the Ben I had first met? Was that a front, too? His presence at Castillo faded until one day, Brent told me that Ben had left the study abroad program early.

I tried not to think about possible reasons for why he had turned anti-social and fled the country, for I didn’t want to blame my appetite for doing more than breaking the law. “A ‘criminal act,’’ Aristotle says, “has results that might have been expected.” I certainly wasn’t expecting my desire to buy hash to amount in his personal downfall. • 24 November 2009

Emily Callaghan‘s work has appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia magazine.
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